What does it take for a film to connect with critics and audiences alike? A great script and bankable cast do not solidify a film’s future success upon release. Many good or great films are ignored by mainstream audiences (or perhaps they are shelved by a skittish studio), while too many bad films seem to strike box office gold.
Why did Warner Brothers fail to heavily promote 1973’s Scarecrow starring Gene Hackman and Al Pacino, two of the hottest actors of their time? How could audiences ignore Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and John Carpenter’s The Thing during the summer of 1982?
The questions as to why a certain film is completely ignored by audiences or buried by studios will never find a satisfactory answer. Perhaps it is the lack of promotion or the fact that studios get scared as release dates get closer, funneling hard-to-sell works into lesser markets. And one will never understand the thought process of movie audiences, especially in the short-attention-span world of today.
Although some of my choices may indeed be known by connoissuers of cinema, I wanted to highlight treasures of 80s cinema that were ignored by audiences of the day and/or buried by their studios and distributors.
For me, the chosen films hold something interesting and unique and have stayed with me throughout the years.
The Night of the Hunted (1980)
Director Jean Rollin was an artful filmmaker who combined horror, thriller, and eroticism to craft unique visions infused with intoxicating ambience. As his type of Erotic Horror fell out of favor, Rollin fell into more exploitation work.
With 1980’s Night of the Hunted, the filmmaker made something classy out of a film saddled with one of his lowest production budgets and a terribly short shooting schedule.
Rollin cast his film with a few of French Cinema’s most popular Adult Film actors (with Bridgett Lahaie turning in an impressive and well-received performance), crafting a gruesome horror tale. The story involves a clinic whose patients are losing their identities because of an unexplainable accident.
What makes the picture special is the director’s attention to character and performance and the way Rollin creates an effectively sinister atmosphere through Jean-Claude Couty’s cinematography and the sublimely eerie score from Phillipe Brejean.
This is an involving picture that features good performances and some striking images.
Still of the Night (1982)
Robert Benton won Oscars for 1979’s Kramer vs. Kramer. His next project was 1982’s Still of the Night. The term gets thrown around too often, but Benton’s picture is a purposely Hitchcockian murder mystery about a psychiatrist who falls for a mysterious woman who is being stalked by a killer.
Roy Scheider and Meryl Streep were cast in the leads, but the intriguing film received too small a release with little-to-no fanfare and quickly faded from cinemas.
The critics were mixed in their reception, with too many of them focusing on Benton’s homages. The film stands the test of time as the kind of thriller Hollywood has no interest in producing today, a well-acted and well-paced thriller with a smart screenplay.
A Breed Apart (1984)
In 1984, Rutger Hauer, Kathleen Turner, and Powers Boothe were on fire. Blade Runner, Body Heat, and The Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones, respectively, made each actor a big star.
In A Breed Apart Hauer plays a conservationist who must stop Boothe’s character from stealing the priceless eggs of rare eagles. Kathleen Turner is the widow who falls for Hauer but is not immune to Boothe’s rugged charm.
Director Phillippe Mora assembled a good cast and the few positive reviews noted how screenwriter Paul Wheeler brought both excitement and well-written characters to the admittedly unusual story.
Hemdale decided to release it almost straight to video after an entire reel was lost and some of its important subplots were ruined, leading to a few re-shoots and a somewhat different narrative. Mora’s film is quite unique.
Director Lynne Littman’ 1983 film Testament was critically praised and earned Jane Alexander an Oscar nomination. To assure Oscar consideration, the film was screened to New York and L.A critics but premiered on local PBS television stations.
While respected, Littman’s film of a family surviving in a post-nuclear world has become lost over the years.
Staying away from any FX spectacles of missile strikes, John Sacret Young’s powerful screenplay (based on the novel The Last Testament by Carol Amen) brings the focus of survival to a mother’s love and strength. This is a picture a potent time-capsule of an era where the threat of nuclear war was a constant.
Sherman’s March (1985)
Writer/director Ross McElwee’s 1985 film Sherman’s March is both a documentary and a smart and very funny relationship comedy. What started as a film that was to track the historic route of General Sherman’s famous “March to the Sea” during the final days of the American Civil War, became a humorous and soulful examination of the filmmaker’s uneven love life.
The film was shown in cinemas, but mostly in big city Art Film houses and college campuses, where it found a cult following.
Critics praised the film’s unique quality and McElwee’s honesty as a director. The film won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and was rightfully chosen as Documentary of the Year by the New York Film Critics Circle and National Society of Film Critics.
Man on Fire (1987)
Almost everyone knows Tony Scott’s 2004 hit, Man on Fire starring Denzel Washington. Not enough cinema fans know of Eli Chouraqui’s 1987 original film of the same name.
Based on the A.J. Quinell novel and adapted by Chouraqui and Sergio Donati, the project was originally slated for Sergio Leone to direct. Sadly, the director died before this could come to fruition.
Choraqui’s film tells of former government agent John Creasy (Scott Glenn) who is hired to be a bodyguard to a rich family’s young daughter. Creasy and the girl bond, as she becomes like a daughter to him. After she is kidnapped, Creasy seeks a violent revenge.
The film’s cast included Glenn, Joe Pesci, Jonathan Pryce, Brooke Adams, and Danny Aiello. While Scott’s film had a solid cast and was bigger and flashier, Chouraqui’s 1987 original is grittier and more realistic, allowing it to better age as the years continue.
By the 1980s, the Western had long lost its shine with movie audiences. After the colossal financial failure and bad reputation of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate the previous year, it was no surprise that a skittish Hemdale decided to give Lamont Johnson’s Cattle Annie and Little Britches a limited release.
Diane Lane and Amanda Plummer played the title characters in the Old West tale of two thrill-seeking teenagers who fall in with a fading outlaw gang. Critics were kind but audience interest was nil. Lamont Johnson directed the film with a patient style and allowed the concentration to focus on its characterizations. The filmmaker crafted a film that paid respect to the mythos of the Old West with a perceptive grace. Pauline Kael was one of the film’s champions, praising Larry Pizer’s cinematography, Robert Ward and David Eyre’s screenplay, and most of the film’s performances.
With a supporting cast that included Burt Lancaster, Rod Steiger, John Savage, and Scott Glenn, this should have been a bigger deal.
Smooth Talk (1985)
Screenwriter Tom Cole adapted the Joyce Carol Oates story “Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been?” for director Joyce Chopra’s 1985 Indie, Smooth Talk. Laura Dern starred as a 15-year-old girl who meets (and is somewhat stalked by) a mysterious and dangerous older man played by Treat Williams.
Dern’s performance made critics take notice, as most of the film centers on her work as a young woman who is forced to grow emotionally and sexually much too soon.
Chopra has claimed the film as her finest while critics praised the overall maturity of the piece. Smooth Talk was nominated for multiple Independent Spirit Awards for Dern and Williams’ acting, Cole’s screenplay, Chopra’s directing, and for Best Film. Most agree that the film holds some of the finest acting of both Laura Dern and Treat Williams’ careers.
Thankfully, Criterion has righted any wrongs and brought this under-seen treasure to a wider availability.
Treat Williams returns to the list in a neglected treasure from HBO Pictures and Silver Screen Partners.
William Tannen’s Flashpoint is a tightly directed thriller about two Texas Border patrol officers (Kris Kristofferson and Treat Williams) who stumble on a decade-old corpse and a case of money that may be linked to the Kennedy assassination.
The film had a wide release but next to no promotion which hurt its chances at the box office. Critics were kind, with Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert giving it their patented “Thumbs Up” and claiming it was one of Kristofferson’s finest hours as an actor.
Tangerine Dream provided the score which added to the film’s tension and helped to make Peter Moss’ sun-scorched cinematography pop while Tannen kept the film moving through expert pacing and crisp editing from David Garfield.
Tannen did not have a pleasant experience with the studio, as they tried to interfere with the editing process and forced the filmmaker to tack on an out of place (and awful) end credits song.
Unfortunately, the film only lasted a couple of weeks in theaters and William Tannen would do only a few more films before retreating into television work, never making good on the promise he showed with this excellent motion picture.
William Friedkin’s Rampage had a hard road to the screen.
This dramatic thriller focusing on a serial killer and the fight over the Death Penalty vs an Insanity plea was set for release in the Fall of 1987 but was shelved due to the bankruptcy of its distributor, De Laurentiis Entertainment Group. When Miramax picked it up in late 1991, Friedkin had already rethought his screenplay’s original ending and reshot his finale. The film received an extremely limited release in 1992 before going to the home video markets with no promotion behind it.
Michael Biehn stars as a California District Attorney who goes against his beliefs to seek the Death Penalty for a man who gruesomely murders a family, a woman, and her child during the Christmas holiday. Biehn’s struggle with his liberal views come in dramatic contrast to his thoughts about prosecuting the killer. The character and his wife, played by Deborah Van Valkenburgh, lost their young daughter during surgery a few years prior, a tragedy which colors his prosecutorial morality.
During the prolonged delay on the film’s release, William Friedkin re-edited the ending of the film and changed the argument to reflect his new beliefs on the Death Penalty. Both versions work very well and exist as two sides of the Capital Punishment coin, with the filmmaker achieving some of the best character-driven work of his career.
The performances from Biehn, Alex MacArthur (as the killer), and Van Valkenburgh complement Friedkin’s desire for realism and depth while Ennio Morricone’s score adds to the haunting humanity of the film.
This is a striking work that will lead to debate and reflection for all who see it.