Sunday, June 24, 2012

Summer of 1982: BLADE RUNNER and THE THING (June 25, 1982)

When I first noticed online chatter about the 30th anniversary of the Summer of 1982 and all the classic genre fare that rolled out during that eventful season, I noticed that a lot of it was centered around this weekend.  Yes, there was already CONAN THE BARBARIAN and THE ROAD WARRIOR and STAR TREK II and POLTERGEIST and E.T., but really the weekend of June 25, 1982 is what was generating the most enthusiasm as the 30th anniversary approached.  Moviegoers had no way of knowing it at the time, but they wouldn't realize the impact of this weekend for quite some time.  Years, in fact.  On Friday, June 25, 1982, two of the most important, groundbreaking, influential, and universally respected genre films of the last 30 years were unveiled:  Ridley Scott's BLADE RUNNER and John Carpenter's THE THING.

But it was certainly a different story in 1982.  BLADE RUNNER, heavily hyped as not only Ridley Scott's follow-up to ALIEN (1979), but also Harrison Ford's first film since 1981's blockbuster RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, opened well but nosedived its second weekend and fell short of recouping its budget.  Considering Ford's recent track record of STAR WARS, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, and RAIDERS, audiences didn't want a slow, bleak, philosophical, meditative film noir-inspired science fiction film that didn't offer much in the way of action.  Not helping matters was that the released film, as we would find out in the coming years, was not Scott's preferred version, but a compromised one with a changed ending and voiceover narration added after the fact by Ford, who wasn't enthused about this decision and sounds like he's doing it at gunpoint.  Nevertheless, the film, based on Philip K. Dick's novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, almost instantly developed a fervent cult following despite disappearing from theaters rather quickly.  It's easy to see why: even if you don't like the story or find it too ponderous and slow, there's no denying that it looks and feels like no other film.  From Lawrence G. Paull's production design to Douglas Trumbull's photographic effects to the contributions of "visual futurist" Syd Mead to its rainy Los Angeles of 2019 to the hypnotic electronic score by Vangelis, then riding high on his CHARIOTS OF FIRE theme, BLADE RUNNER was a wholly unique cinematic vision that had never been seen before.

The incredible opening scene of BLADE RUNNER:

Harrison Ford as Deckard
The film had to have a few moments of violence trimmed to avoid an X rating, but an unrated version eventually appeared on VHS.  A somewhat mislabeled "director's cut" was released in 1992, done without Scott's involvement but assembled based on his original cut.  It removed Ford's narration and reinstated the original ending and the important dream sequence with the unicorn.  This quickly became the new "official" version of BLADE RUNNER until 2007 when Scott issued BLADE RUNNER: THE FINAL CUT, his first fully-approved director's cut with the previous 1992 changes (or reinstatements), along with some different shots, improved visual effects, corrected gaffes (like the digital removal of the visible wires on the flying police spinners), and a more smoothly-done chase sequence between blade runner Deckard (Ford) and replicant Zohra (Joanna Cassidy), a scene that was bungled a bit in past versions by Cassidy's curly-haired stunt double being all too obvious.

Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) delivering one of cinema's great speeches

No less than five versions of BLADE RUNNER exist--the 1982 R-rated theatrical, the unrated version of the 1982 cut, the 1992 "Director's Cut," the 2007 Final Cut, and, exclusively on the Blu-ray set, a pre-release workprint version--though the 2007 Final Cut is now considered by Scott to be official.  Nevertheless, there are a small number of folks who prefer the 1982 theatrical.  It gives you the proper visual impact, but it's not the film Scott wanted to make (which, all the way up to the just-released PROMETHEUS, seems to be the story of his career), has a happy ending (Deckard escapes with Sean Young's Rachel) and makes clear the many plot elements that co-writer Hampton Fancher preferred to remain ambiguous, though Scott has been pretty clear in his own interpretation of the "Deckard is really a replicant" ending.  It took 25 years for Scott's intended version--really a fine-tuning of the 1992 cut--to finally see the light of day, and it works because its technical changes are not overwhelming.  Scott uses 2007 technological advancements on a 1982 film but does it in subtle ways.  He doesn't put the changes front and center in a way that takes BLADE RUNNER out of its proper era and context.  I generally don't agree with filmmakers going back and enhancing or "fixing" a film with technology that didn't exist when that film was made, but if there is indeed a right way to do it, then that's what Scott has done with BLADE RUNNER: THE FINAL CUT.

John Carpenter's THE THING, like the 1951 sci-fi classic THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD, is based on John W. Campbell, Jr's classic short story "Who Goes There?"  The 1951 film had an Antarctica outpost attacked by an alien being (James Arness).  Carpenter's film follows the story more faithfully:  an alien life form infiltrates an Antarctica research facility and starts killing, absorbing, and imitating the protagonists.  It's an exercise in nail-biting, sweat-inducing paranoia and Carpenter and screenwriter Bill Lancaster (son of Hollywood legend Burt) milk it for all it's worth.  But what really set THE THING apart from everything else in the summer of 1982 was its shocking, inventive special effects by Rob Bottin.  These gory effects were a major gripe for film critics of the old guard, who probably saw Carpenter as a symbol of all that was wrong with horror films in the early 1980s.  His HALLOWEEN was instrumental in starting the slasher craze that was flooding theaters and presumably warping the minds of impressionable children.  Horror fans who saw THE THING thought very highly of it, but it was a box-office disappointment at the time.  It found a strong fan base once it hit video and then became a fixture on pay cable for the rest of the decade.

Kurt Russell as R.J. "Hey, Sweden!" MacReady.
But then something funny happened:  years and years later, THE THING started being regularly name-checked by serious film critics as a great horror film.  It's not uncommon for John Carpenter films to get belated accolades years after they're released and instantly dismissed (in recent years, critics have finally started coming around to 1987's ambitious, physics-heavy PRINCE OF DARKNESS and 1988's more-relevant-than-ever THEY LIVE), but there's almost nothing but nice things said about THE THING today.  Sure, some of the critics of the early '80s have changed their tune, but it's also indicative of a new generation of film critics and historians and the films that mean something to them.  In his essential 1985 study Nightmare Movies, Kim Newman was one of the first critics to praise the merits of slasher films, zombie films, and splatter films by people like Carpenter, Wes Craven, and Lucio Fulci, and to say they were just as important as the classics cherished by old-guard stalwarts like William K. Everson, who blasted new films like NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and THE EXORCIST in his mid-1970s book Classics of the Horror Film, a survey of horror films going back to the silents.  Everson lamented the rise of excessive violence and sex, while Newman essentially said "Times have changed, these are the new classics."  One of the best lines in Newman's book is when he hopes some kid reading his book writes another decades down the road that contradicts everything he's just written.

The Norris defibrillation scene:

The point is, there were still a lot of older critics who didn't take a shine to Carpenter and HALLOWEEN and his gore effects and thought the new THING was an insult to the black & white classic from 1951.  That is, if they deemed horror a real genre at all, which many highbrow critics didn't.  The decades have altered that sentiment, even if Leonard Maltin's book still rates it a mere *½.  Aside from Palmer's (David Clennon) top-loading VCR, Nauls' (T.K. Carter) Stevie Wonder-blaring ghetto blaster, and R.J. MacReady's (Kurt Russell) J&B-doused battle with the Chess Wizard, THE THING has aged better than arguably any horror film of its day.  As a horror film, it's incredibly intense, and as a study in paranoia, it's top-notch.  The characters are believable and they use their heads, and the film establishes ground rules and sticks to them, never cheating.  Maybe one reason the film didn't catch on at the time or didn't initally seem appealing to audiences is because horror was fast-becoming a teen genre, and this was filled with cranky-looking character actors like Wilford Brimley, Donald Moffat, and Richard Dysart, with Russell (fresh from Carpenter's ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK), Carter (a comedian who was just in Walter Hill's SOUTHERN COMFORT), and Thomas G. Waites (Fox in Hill's THE WARRIORS) the closest thing to "youth appeal."  Maybe everyone was still going to see E.T. and if that was sold out, they opted for BLADE RUNNER because of Harrison Ford.  Regardless of the whys, THE THING's day eventually arrived (last year saw the release of a passable but pointless prequel--also titled THE THING--about the events that led up to the 1982 film).  Carpenter's THE THING is cherished by fans, and Carpenter, lambasted by film snobs for so many years, is finally held in high regard and lauded as a great filmmaker.  I can't recall meeting anyone--in person or online--who doesn't think THE THING is one of the great horror films not just of the last 30 years, but ever.  It's a classic, period.  And the DVD commentary with Carpenter and Russell is almost as entertaining as the film itself.

BLADE RUNNER and THE THING proved to be films that were years ahead of their time, and both have not only stood the test of time, but they get better with each passing year. Not many 30-year-old films can make that boast, and two of them, so neglected and underappreciated in 1982, were released on the same day.

And then there's MEGAFORCE.

Hal Needham's MEGAFORCE also hit theaters this same weekend.  Budgeted at $20 million (quite a bit by 1982 standards), it grossed about a quarter of that and was one of the biggest bombs of the early 1980s, even with a tie-in Hot Wheels playset and an Atari 2600 game. MEGAFORCE is pretty hard to see these days:  it was released on VHS and aired on cable, but it's never been released on DVD (though there are bootlegs, and it periodically turns up on YouTube before being taken down), despite it accruing a bit of a following over the last 30 years.  Used VHS copies start at $34 on Amazon.  The action-packed story centers on Ace Hunter (Barry Bostwick), the leader of Megaforce, a freelance organization of international mercenaries.  Megaforce is hired to help the fictional nation of Sardun defeat an invasion by neighboring country Gamibia--an invasion led by Ace's former friend Duke Gurerra (Henry Silva).  Filled with flying motorcycles and laser-shooting megacruiser dune buggies, MEGAFORCE is a total comic book fantasy, and Needham (director of numerous Burt Reynolds car chase comedies, starting with SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT) was said to be very discouraged by its horrible reception.  Being released the same weekend as BLADE RUNNER and during the summer of E.T. probably didn't help.  It wasn't exactly the big break to the A-list that TV star Bostwick was hoping for, either.  Bostwick co-starred in THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (1975), but was primarily a TV actor by 1982, and after MEGAFORCE mega-bombed, he licked his wounds and went right back to TV, where he's enjoyed a busy career to this day with only occasional supporting roles on the big screen. 

Also starring in MEGAFORCE were Michael Beck and Persis Khambatta.  The engaging Beck established himself as an actor to watch as Swan in 1979's THE WARRIORS, but just couldn't catch a break after that (he once said--I think on the WARRIORS DVD, perhaps?--that "THE WARRIORS opened a ton of doors...that XANADU immediately closed").  After Razzie nominations for both XANADU and MEGAFORCE, Beck moved on to the Roger Corman-released WARLORDS OF THE 21ST CENTURY (aka BATTLETRUCK) and co-starred with Richard Harris in the barely-released TRIUMPHS OF A MAN CALLED HORSE, and then it was pretty much TV guest spots and made-for-TV movies after that.  Beck hasn't acted since 2004 but has found a lucrative career as an in-demand voice for TV commercials and audiobook readings.  MEGAFORCE did nothing to help anyone's career, but Khambatta seemed to fare worse than her co-stars.  After the Indian actress' breakthrough as the bald Ilia in 1979's STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE and as a sultry international terrorist in 1981's NIGHTHAWKS, MEGAFORCE was essentially her last shot at Hollywood fame.  Within a year, she was co-starring in the Italian post-nuke WARRIOR OF THE LOST WORLD and did a few TV roles and straight-to-video titles before essentially retiring from acting in the late '80s.  She had a couple of bit parts on TV in the '90s and was only 49 when she died of a heart attack in 1998.

With the increased popularity of studios doing manufactured-on-demand DVD releases, it seems unlikely that MEGAFORCE will never see the light of day on DVD or Blu-ray, but there's no sign of it happening in the immediate future.**

**UPDATE: Actually, it appears Hen's Tooth is releasing it on DVD on September 4, 2012.

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