movies

I Spent My Adolescence Wandering the Teen Movie Desert

Heather Duke

Shannen Doherty as Heather Duke in the film that killed ’80s teen movies.  She’d later play the iconic Brenda Walsh on the ’90s teen soap Beverly Hills 90210.

I’m in the middle of prepping for my next episode, which is going to be about the 1995 film Clueless. It’s a movie that is culturally significant because it was one of a number of movies that started a teen movie boom in the mid- to late-1990s and early 200s after a period that didn’t see many successful films in the genre, at least on the level that we saw in the previous decade with the Brat Pack films. If we take what Jonathan Bernstein says in Pretty in Pink: The Golden Age of Teenage Movies and say that 1989 is a benchmark for the end of the movie genre’s initial success because, as he puts it, Heathers killed it “stone dead” and that 1995 was the beginning of what was looking like a revival, we have a period where teen movies of many genres–comedy, drama, and horror–saw very little success.

 

This period also happens to coincide with most of my adolescence. I began junior high in the fall of 1989 and graduated high school in June of 1995, which meant that I was the target audience for what wound up being a dearth of flicks. Now, I can tell you that I spent a lot of time going to the comic store and my adolescence also coincides with the boom and subsequent bust of that particular collector’s market, but not everyone I knew was into superheroes and comics on the level that I was, so this long intro and cultural context does beg the question: what were we doing if we weren’t going to the movies in the early 1990s? I’m going to try and plumb the depths of my fuzzy memories of this period to give you … some sort of explanation, and it starts with the very place we were supposedly avoiding.

Because we were going to the movies; we just weren’t seeing those movies. I remember seeing most of those classic teen flicks like The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink when I was in junior high and high school because they were rerun on television quite a bit and if what I saw seemed interesting enough, I’d hit up Video Empire so I could see the whole thing instead of the 45 minutes or so I caught on WPIX (or in the case of movies like Fast Times at Ridgemont High, the whole, uncensored thing). But trips to the theater were, at least for me, reserved for Batman movies, Terminator sequels, Van Damme and Seagal action flicks, and blockbusters like Jurassic Park. The closest that I think I ever got to seeing a movie aimed directly at me and people my age in the theater were the two Wayne’s World movies and even then, those were SNL-based.

Pump up the Volume

Starring Christian Slater, Pump Up the Volume was one of the few movies of the early Nineties with an impact.

Not that we didn’t have stuff like Pump Up the Volume (an episode that I swear is coming at some point) and Reality Bites (which I covered back in 1994), but when looking at what came out during that time period, most of the movies had characters who were slightly older or younger than me. Pump Up the Volume and two Brendan Fraser movies–Encino Man and School Ties–were probably exceptions to this rule, as they did take place in a high school. But when I watched Singles or Reality Bites, I was watching movies aimed at the heart of Generation X, which was the core audience for most of the original wave of teen movies and whom by then had more or less grown tired or grown out of the genre. These two movies, while they did moderately well, did underperform and are more on the edge of the “cult classic” than bona fide cultural touchstones. And there was always a “looking at the older kids” aspect to them. Concurrently, there were a number of movies that were made for the early Millennial set–Now and Then, The Mighty Ducks, Man in the Moon, My Girl–and were a nice set-up for movies like Clueless, Scream, and I Know What You Did Last Summer. Even the few that did match right up appropriate with my age, such as PCU (again, I covered this in 1994) and Dazed & Confused (another episode I will eventually do) were box office bombs that got new life on video and cable.

 

Besides, we were watching ourselves more on television. While the WB, which began in 1994, would unlock the secret to the teen audience in the latter part of the decade with Buffy and Dawson’s Creek, credit where credit is due needs to go to Fox and MTV for what they did in the early 1990s. MTV had already been around for a decade by the time I was finishing junior high and was the default station for teenagers; Fox was just starting out and had realized that they could use what was then a more “edgy” tone to some of its programming to attract audiences that the big three networks were more or less ignoring. So, you have stuff like Parker Lewis Can’t Lose, 21 Jump Street, and Beverly Hills 90210 on Fox and MTV’s seminal reality show, The Real World. And while ABC would throw its hat in the ring with My So-Called Life in 1994, Fox and MTV had more of an impact–in fact, MSCL got a second life in reruns on MTV way into the later part of the decade.

 

Real World Cast

The cast of season 3 (San Francisco) of The Real World, which premiered in 1994.

90210 and The Real World really are the shows to consider because to people my age they were aspirational in a sense–90210 was full of the glamorous life and The Real World showed teenagers how cool it was going to be when you finally left home. Yes, there was drama on The Real World and in those first few seasons, people were dealing with serious issues and problems, but we all wanted to live in that house at one point or another (at least until we hit our twenties and realized that the real world was a lot more boring). There also wasn’t much beyond that as far as programming was concerned. Outside of what I’ve listed, we were kind of stuck between Full House and Seinfeld and usually chose the latter, even if we didn’t get all of the jokes. That is, until Beavis and Butthead came along.

 

Now, I realize that I’m simplifying for the sake of argument here and probably could do an entire series of posts or a book on this teen entertainment desert (which isn’t that half bad of an idea, tbh), so there were other shows and movies out there, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that Beavis and Butthead was a seminal show. Like I said, there was an “older kid” aspiration to a lot of the leftovers from the Eighties or what was on screen in the early Nineties. Watching the Hughes flicks or any other movies from that era sometimes felt like you were rifling through the room of your older brother or sister who had gone away to college and left everything unguarded, or that you were Judy in American Graffiti or Mitch Kramer in Dazed & Confused hanging out with the older kids. But watching an episode of Beavis and Butthead was like looking around your own high school. No, I didn’t do nearly any of the crazy crap those two did, but I know plenty of people who were just as idiotic; furthermore, there was a lot of sitting around and watching random crap on TV at my house and my friends’ houses while making snarky comments at what was on television. Plus, they were often watching music videos and while MTV would taper off playing videos throughout the decade, this was around the time–at least in my life–that music seemed important.

Based on the content of my last episode, it’s not revelatory to say that music is important to teenagers–it has been since my parents’ generation–but after the latter part of the Eighties and its vapid pop-rock and hair metal, the pendulum swung back to music that took itself more seriously. Oh, there was plenty of vapid crap in the early 1990s (nobody is comparing “Baby Got Back” to The Beatles), but the messages (if there were any) in “Girls Girls Girls” and “Nothin’ But a Good Time” see seemed pretty empty considering how deep we were into a recession. The gloom of alternative and the anger of punk fit what many of us were going through or at least thought we were going through (in a Holden Caulfield sort of way) as opposed to songs about strippers and blow on the Sunset Strip. Plus, this was a time when you couldn’t access a song unless it was released as a single, so you had to make the conscious choice to buy an entire album on cassette or CD and that meant being smart about where exactly you put your disposable income and that also meant that the purchase held more weight and you sought out things that really did mean something.

rds0yxfd2dy7ah1ynn3f

Mortal Kombat fatalities such as this one caused quite a bit of hand-wringing.

That is, if you weren’t bathing in the blood of Mortal Kombat opponents. If there’s one thing I have learned from being a late-period Gen-Xer (especially one with a tween of my own), it’s that video games are huge and can be all-consuming. The older part of my generation did play video games and they certainly had gaming systems in the house, but those of us who were tweens and teens in the late 1980s and early 1990s were really the first to take it to a level beyond novelty or something we would outgrow. Video games and systems were just as expensive in the early Nineties as they are now, and that meant an investment of money and time, and they began to reflect those costs. Games were become more complex and more adult–by 1994, they even had ratings on the packages to reflect that not all of them were for little kids–so fewer people were abandoning them as the novelty wore off or they got older. While I didn’t own my own system after playing on my NES, I spent countless hours at friends’ houses playing Street Fighter, F-Zero, Mortal Kombat, Madden, NHL, and a number of other games.

 

And in a few paragraphs, I just listed everything we were doing in lieu of watching the latest iteration of The Breakfast Club. And at the heart of it is that when I was a teenager, my friends and I were doing what we wanted and really didn’t care. We kind of shrugged at what was offered to us, which caused hand-wringing among a number of companies because teenagers and twentysomethings weren’t taking everything offered to them. The “Generation X” label tended to be a negative reaction to those groups’ unwillingness to part with all of their money after a decade of teenagers buying all of the shiny things corporations had to offer. It’s almost as if people forgot how adolescents tended to act.

As I look at my students and what they are into, I don’t know if things with teen movies have cycled back to the desert of the early Nineties or if things have diversified so much–after all, there are multiple platforms now on which to view or listen to things. I believe it’s somewhere in between, although my hitting middle age definitely doesn’t help.

A New Year’s Eve on the Brink

When you trade in nostalgia, the idea of a milestone anniversary for something you cherished in your formative years is constantly on your mind.  Since starting this blog, I have watched the 20th, 25th, 30th, and even 40th anniversaries of pieces of popular culture that were personal milestones come and go.  Some, I have celebrated; others, I have acknowledged but decided not to cover because the idea of constantly chasing such anniversaries sounds exhausting.

That being said, today marks 30 years since New Year’s Eve 1988.  Nothing significant happened exactly on this day, but when I was thinking about what to write for my annual New Year’s Eve post, the thought of the 1988-1989 school year kept popping into my head and the more and more I thought about it, I discovered that in hindsight, this was a year that was more important than I once thought, both personally and culturally.

Why?  Well, for a number of reasons (and not just mathematically), 1988 was the beginning of the end of what we commonly celebrate as the 1980s and as we moved into 1989, we would see our culture shift into that odd post-1980s hangover that was the pre-Nevermind early 1990s.  It was, as the title of this post suggests, a time when we were on the brink.  The Cold War was ending, we were heading toward a new decade, I was hitting puberty, and there were other societal shifts that we as a culture were both seeing and wouldn’t realize were there until they were over (or in my case, 30 years later).

So, to take us out of 2018, here is my list of … Eight Significant Things about 1988-1989. (more…)

Take me to “The Church”

The Church DVDI have little to no experience with Italian horror films.  I mean, if I am being completely honest, I don’t have a ton of horror movie experience overall.  I was easily scared as a kid and kept my distance from horror flicks while at the same time always found myself lingering over the boxes of horror movies at the video store.  I’ve written about this before, but those boxes were almost pornographically alluring–this was the stuff only my dad was allowed to rent, and maybe I would catch a glimpse of it if I walked into the room while he was watching it.

Such was the case with The Church, a late 1980s film produced by Dario Argento and directed by Michele Soavi, which my dad rented at random sometime in 1990 or so and which my friends and I happened to catch the last half of one afternoon when he was home watching it (probably because he’d fallen asleep watching it the night before and needed to return the rental).  Back then, my experience with horror was limited to The Lost Boys, Fright Night, Carrie, and bits and pieces of horror movies that would air on TV, such as Dracula: Prince of Darkness.

I don’t think I understood what was going on when I watched The Church nearly 30 years ago and the movie didn’t scare me, but two images stuck with me:  a woman painted with weird symbols being put on an altar so that she could have ritualistic sex with a demon, and a naked woman making out with a demon who is grabbing her naked behind.  A couple of years later, I saw the latter image–which was Boris Vallejo’s “Vampire’s Kiss”–on some guy’s T-shirt when I was at Mission Beach in San Diego.

But I never saw The Church again, even in my browsing through the more random depths of the video stores of my youth and even when I had gotten over my trepidation about horror and rented some of the classics.  In fact, I had forgotten it had existed until I began compiling my list of topics for this blog and had thrown it into my Netflix queue where it lay buried until it showed up on the mail a few weeks ago.

Which segues into my very brief summary of the movie’s plot:  The Tetonic Knights slaughter a village of Satan worshippers, although one of them (played by a tween-aged Asia Argento) escapes.  They bury the bodies and over the years, a gothic cathedral is built on top of it.  Flash forward to modern day where a small group of main characters both accidentally and deliberately brings about the chain of events that will unleash the evil contained underneath.  All that stands between that evil and our world is Father Gus (Hugh Quarshie–Castigir from Highlander), who seems to be the only person in the entire film not possessed, driven insane, or otherwise affected by the coming evil.

This is not a movie that you watch for its story or for its character beats.  This is a movie you watch because when things get going, a lot of really weird shit happens.  People get possessed and rip out their own organs, they get impaled, they have sex with demons, they use other people’s severed heads to ring church bells–it’s almost like the writers sat around a room and brainstormed the hell out of what you could do to a group of people trapped in a demonically possessed gothic cathedral.

It’s not an all-time great movie, but I did find that The Church still stuck with me all these years later, much like it had in the 30 minutes or so that I saw back in 1990.  As of my writing this post, it’s not available on a streaming service, but a Blu-Ray was released earlier this year that apparently cleaned up some of the picture issues seen on the DVD and may have even remastered the sound (if there’s one thing you have to get used to, it’s the amount of dialogue that was obviously looped in post-production).  I’d check it out if you’re a fan of schlocky, crazy horror or really like gothic cathedrals.

“That’s Not a Star Wars Movie”

vintage_bibb_rotj_sheets4

The Return of the Jedi bedsheets I had as a kid.  Image courtesy of “Mighty Jabba’s Collection.”

It’s late August or early September 1995.  I’ve just started classes at Loyola and I’m sitting in my freshman seminar course for the college’s Honors Program.  Our professor is doing a classic icebreaker where we talk about ourselves.  I listen to all of the smart and worthwhile ways my classmates spend their time and immediately feel like the dumbest person in the room–after all, renting movies and playing roller hockey are not the most academic pursuits–and then hear another guy in the room profess his love for Star Wars.  After class, I catch him the quad and tell him that I’m into Star Wars as well and just watched Return of the Jedi the other night.

He pauses for a moment and said with a sniff, “That’s not a Star Wars movie.”

I don’t exactly remember how I reacted at the time–I might have laughed it off or half-agreed with him–but that moment stands out to me because it was the first time I encountered a snobby nerd.

It seems odd that it took me until my freshman year of college to have such a moment, especially since reading comics and watching science fiction movies was not the domain of the popular crowd in junior high and high school, and I had dealt with a number of rock snobs by then, but this was the first time I had run into one of my own looking down upon the way I approached a shared interest.  It was also one of the first times that I realized that there were people who had a problem with Return of the Jedi.

tcan2

The Return of the Jedi trash can that sat by my bed for a few years.  Image from DJbrian.net

I have always had a fondness for Return of the Jedi.  That movie, which came out 35 years ago today, was the only film in the original trilogy that I saw upon its initial release (twice if you count the 1985 re-release).  Sure, I watched my copy of Star Wars on VHS endlessly and I had a number of toys from the first two films, but Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back were movies that came out when I was unaware of movies. Jedi was the one that I was old enough to go see in a theater and the one I talked about with my friends on the playground at school and whose scenes we re-enacted during recess (especially the speeder bikes and the lightsaber fights).

Moreover, it was the film whose logo was emblazoned on just about everything I owned. This isn’t hard to picture, of course, considering that the merchandising for the movie was a juggernaut that I think was so unavoidable that parents were issued at least one piece of Jedi merchandise for Christmas in 1983.  And while this isn’t a comprehensive or accurate list, I am sure that I owned, used, or consumed, in addition to toys: bedsheets, a garbage can, a calendar, posters, a lunchbox, an iron-on sweatshirt, records, books, Dixie cups, wrapping paper, cookies, and party favors (for my birthday in 1984).  I wore out the “read along” book/cassette and played my picture disk record with sounds from the movie endlessly on my parents’ stereo.  I was six years old and in heaven.  It was, to say the least, my Star Wars movie.

Return of the Jedi Fan Club Poster

A special Return of the Jedi poster that was available only to Lucasfilm Fan Club members.

A critical look at the film will tell you that out of the original trilogy, it is the weakest–I personally consider Empire to be the best, which isn’t controversial–and it suffers from the pressure of what it had to do after its predecessors, which is wrap up loose ends and complete the saga in a way that was bigger than anything that had come before.  It doesn’t do its job as well as it could have–for instance, there are two particular adventures in the movie that feel like two separate movies shoved into one and I wonder if it were made today, Jedi would have either been a three-hour movie or two movies altogether.  Plus, Han doesn’t have much to do aside from being comic relief, and the Tattooine stuff does drag up until the battle on the sail barge (and that’s before the godawful “Jedi Rocks” segment from 1997’s Special Edition).

But “That’s not a Star Wars movie?”  It certainly felt like Star Wars when I was six; it feels like Star Wars now.

If this were an isolated incident, I would probably be able to let it go.  But even before I graduated college, I remember being fansplained to about the way the Ewoks were the worst thing ever to happen to Star Wars (I never had much of a problem with the Ewoks), and since then I have seen more than a few “Here’s How Return of the Jedi Ruined Star Wars Forever” takes on the Internet.  I even had a moment in my LCS around the time of The Force Awakens when a guy scoffed at my then-eight-year-old son’s saying he loved the Ewoks and I had to say, “Well, he’s eight, you know.”

And while I understand that there were earlier versions of the plot that kept the tone of Empire and that the movie is criticized for the sheer amount of tie-in products that were available, I still can’t look down my nose at Return of the Jedi as less-than.  It’s disappointing that its legacy seems to range from snark to sneering that it’s “not a Star Wars movie” because when I sit down to watch it, I’m always taken back to being six and listening to my records, reading the storybook, and looking at the poster that I got from the Lucasfilm Fan Club.

For the next four years of college, I don’t think I had another conversation with that guy from my honors class.  Apparently, since I couldn’t Star Wars right, that gave him license to be a total prick to me whenever we were in the same class.  I’m sure he’s out there somewhere, perhaps lamenting the presence of a little kid holding a porg or something.  I’d rather not think about his pretentious ass and instead will laugh at an Ewok stealing a speeder bike.

Pop Culture Affidavit Episode 85: Victory or Death!

Episode 85 Website Cover.jpgGreetings, listener. You have been recruited by the Star League to defend the frontier against Xur and the Ko-Dan armada!  That’s right, it’s time to brush up on your video game skills and fly into my coverage of the 1984 sci-fi flick, The Last Starfighter.  Over the course of this episode, I recap the movie and give it my review; plus, I take a look at the novelization by Alan Dean Foster, the comics adaptation from Marvel, the aborted toy line, and several attempts at video game adaptations.  I also talk about sequel and reboot rumors.

You can listen here:

iTunes:  Pop Culture Affidavit

Direct Download 

Pop Culture Affidavit podcast page

As mentioned in the episode, here are some extras …

The storybook …

Last Starfighter Storybook

Plaid Stallions’ post on the aborted toy line (I mentioned another site in the show but then realized that they had swiped all of their pictures from Plaid Stallions, so I went to the source):  Galoob Last Starfighter

Video Game Attempts …

The Wikipedia pages for … Solaris and Star Raiders II

Atari Protos looks at what could have been the video game version of The Last Starfighter

The NES Version …

Last Starfighter NES

Rogue Synapse’s “Starfighter” Game:  The Last Starfighter Starfighter Resources Page

Last Starfighter Poster

Pop Culture Affidavit Episode 80: The Blair Witch Podcast

Episode 80 Website CoverSHOCKTOBER CONCLUDES!!!

In the summer of 2017, two podcasters got on Skype to record a podcast about a horror movie. Three months later, their footage was found. Join me and Michael Bailey as we look at the seminal found footage horror film The Blair Witch Project. In this episode, we talk about the movie; its marketing; the tie-in comics/books/TV specials; and its sequels, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 and Blair Witch.

You can listen here:

iTunes:  Pop Culture Affidavit

Direct Download

Pop Culture Affidavit podcast page

blair_witch_project

The VHS box for Curse of the Blair Witch

Curse of the Blair Witch

The Sci-Fi Channel special Curse of the Blair Witch in full:

 

The Void

the_void_282016_film29

c.  D-Films/Cave Painting Pictures

One of my favorite things to do on the Internet is to watch trailers for horror movies.  I mean, I rarely actually watch the movies, but very often, the advertisements for even the crappiest movies are well done enough to keep me entertained for a couple of minutes.

And then there was the trailer to The Void, which io9 linked to about a year and a half ago:

Done as a bit of a throwback to 1980s creature flicks like John Carpenter’s The ThingThe Void begins in the middle of … something.  A drug addict named James flees a house and a woman tries to follow but she is killed by two men, whom we later learn are Vincent (Daniel Fathers) and his son Simon (Mik Byskov).  James is picked up by a local cop, Daniel (Aaron Poole), who takes him to the local hospital, which is half-abandoned due to a fire some time ago and has a skeleton crew of a staff that includes Daniel’s estranged wife Allison (Kathleen Munroe), a med student named Kim (Ellen Wong), a nurse named Beverly (Stephanie Belding), and an attending physician named Dr. Powell (Kenneth Welsh).  Including Daniel and James, a young girl named Maggie (Grace Munro), who is very pregnant; and her grandfather, Ben (James Millington) are also there.

It’s hard to write a review for this without giving too much away, so I’ll offer up enough to make you consider looking at the entire film.  There are some very strange things going on at this hospital.  People cut their own skin off and are reborn as creatures.  Members of a strange cult whose symbol is a black triangle are surrounding the hospital and attack anyone who tries to leave.  In other words, something otherworldly is going on and whatever it is, it looks to claim the lives of everyone inside.

So what you have is the conceit for what could be a million low-budget horror flicks going all the way back to Night of the Living Dead, and much like that Romero classic, that particular plot contrivance works for The Void.  The directors, Steven Kotsanksi and Jeremy Gillespie, put all of their major characters in the same place so that they can simply concentrate on building tension between them and build the tension surrounding them.

The former comes in the form of the strained relationship between Daniel and Allison, which came about after she lost their baby, which is played straightforward and with the right amount of emotion from the actors–they spend a lot of time trying to avoid one another even though he is also determined to protect her.  And the theme of loss and coping with loss, especially that of a child, is a major one in The Void and the reason it is more than just a gory monster movie.  Kotsanski and Gillespie put some serious work into practical monster effects and combining that with performances that are all-around solid despite from scenery chewing from time to time, this is well-crafted.  You’re not subjected to shaky-cam or found footage, and everything is not explained to you at every turn.  While the reveal of the movie’s villain makes clear what is going on ad why, they still trust their audience enough to make us fill in the blanks where it’s necessary.

At the time I watched this, it was available on Netflix, so if it is still there, watch it.  If you have to rent it, go ahead.  I think that if you’re a fan of 1980s horror films that deal with more supernatural/cosmic elements and monsters (instead of slashers and dead teenagers), you’ll find The Void a worthwhile viewing this or any Shocktober.