Sunday, January 23, 2022

The Spirits of '79: Madness at the Movies

The ephemeral-yet-palpable strangeness of 1979 was well-documented in that year's cinematic offerings. Which is a bit curious, given that most of them would have been made in 1978. But 1978 was a pretty weird year too, just in a slightly different way. 

You might say that 1979 was kind of like 1978’s morning-after, when the party ends and the cold, harsh light of day comes streaming in through the window. Also, there’s a gang of alien-worshipping feral children in your front yard, throwing rocks at passerby and siphoning the gasoline out of your car.

So here’s a selection of films in absolutely no discernible order that you can watch if you need an understanding or a reminder of how strange and dark 1979 could get.

“Post-apocalyptic” and “dystopian” are the terms most reviewers reach for first when talking about Mad Max. The drive-in classic hit US shores with a truly awful redub (ordered by Roger Corman), replacing the salty Aussie accents with cornball voiceovers, but its grindhouse power could not be denied. Neither could Mel Gibson’s star power, which burned through the screen despite the minimal dialogue he was given to work with. 

Mad Max borrowed heavily from American potboilers like Death Wish and Death Race 2000 (which was set in 1979, oddly enough) but had its own special flavor. It went on to become the most profitable movie ever made in relation to cost, and held that crown until The Blair Witch Project knocked it off its throne. 

I didn’t see Mad Max until a few years later and I have to say that I kept thinking Johnny Boy was Adam Ant. The two looked they could be brothers. I was probably also high at the time, seeing as I was pretty much always high for large stretches of my teenage years.

Paraphrasing (as opposed to para-frasering) what I wrote before: This no-budget movie seemed to come out of absolutely nowhere and blow everyone's mind. Phantasm is essentially a Lynch-worthy meditation on the power of nightmare and hallucination, so much so that those inner turmoils start to overwrite reality. 

Weirdly enough, I didn't see Phantasm until it came out on VHS a few years later, but I felt like I had. I generally don't have a good memory for stories and plots but I felt like this movie was exactly as I remembered my mental image of it being, and that's even the scenes beyond the ones they showed in the trailer. I almost felt like I'd lived it. 

Or more disturbingly, dreamed it. Or, more accurately, hallucinated it.

UPDATE: Diver Brandon reminds us that Dawn of the Dead was in fact released in the US in 1979. For some reason, I always think of it as a 1980 movie, probably because it was re-released on the bargain matinee circuit that year. This syncs us up to all kinds of sibyltastic resonators such as Zack Snyder, who directed the remake. And of course, Samantha Morton and any number of TXF people via The Walking Dead, which is just the most bald-faced piece of intellectual property theft I can ever remember. I'd be very surprised if George Romero weren't slipped a nice, fat check attached to a gag order.

Like Mad Max, Alien was a weird little sleeper that struck a chord and inspired an entire franchise. Conceptually, the film was impeccable: a slasher flick in space, only the slasher in question is a giant H.R .Giger dick-monster. Terrific cast, too. 

I saw Alien at the South Shore Drive-Ins in the summer of 1979, in a double-bill with The Fury. The latter is by far the lesser film but it starred Amy Irving, one of great middle school crushes (the other being Tatum O’Neal) and really got under my skin for quite some time: I had telekinesis dreams from that day forward. 

But I digress: Alien was a masterpiece in that it felt absolutely real and Ridley Scott put you right in the middle of it. Quintessentially 1979 in every possible way.

David Cronenberg was clearly a fan of The Fury too, seeing he essentially remade it and called it “Scanners.” Well, maybe not, but you get the point. Also, maybe yes. 

Anyway, The Brood was Cronenberg’s second ’79 offering, but the other one doesn’t count (look it up if you must). He’d do a two-for in 1983 as well. So this is a really sick, insane and disgusting movie and fits right into the 1979 vibe. I think I have it on DVD somewhere, but haven’t watched in a long time. But it all came flooding back to me as soon as I watched the trailer.

I’m sure a lot of you have seen this already but it may be worth a rewatch, alongside of a couple other ’79 offerings of your choice. Do it on a rainy Saturday. Make margaritas, do some kickboxing, whatever.

This is another incredibly sick and insane and fascinating ’79 offering. I haven’t seen this one since I don’t know, 1982 or so? I think I saw it on HBO or something. I don’t remember the plot very well but I sure as hell remember that kid. 

I’m pretty sure Chris Carter did too, since there was a girl in an episode of Millennium who not only looked quite like young Oskar there, but also shrieked like him as well. There’s some high weirdness here but be forewarned this is not an easy film to watch. I remember this played at the Nickelodeon or Harvard Square Theater forever back in the day. At least it felt like it.

What else can be said about a movie about 1969 that was filmed in 1976 yet perfectly encapsulates that elusive 1979 vibration? Replete with use of ‘The End’ by the Doors, who were enjoying a renaissance with a new generation of burn-outs in the wake of the release of An American Prayer, which had the band noodling around with some cocktail lounge disco-jazz behind old tape recordings of Jim Morrison reading his poems.

Anyway, this is one of my favorite movies of all time and I probably watched upwards of a hundred times when I got it on VHS on account of being obsessed in my early life with the Viet Nam War. I remember doing a drawing in Kindergarten of a bunch of red and black scribbles and my dad asking me what it was of and me telling him it was the Viet Nam War. 

I also did a drawing of a forest fire with a baby deer trapped in it on account of my life was incredibly fucked up, even at that tender age. Especially at that tender age, rather.

The Visitor may be the most perfect encapsulation of what I’m talking about when I talk about 1979. It’s absolutely incoherent in all the right ways, and is filled with the familiar faces you were used to seeing in ABC Movies of the Week. There’s a bad Exorcist/Omen clone buried under all the downright Keelian high weirdness and Franco Nero playing an alien Jesus, but it’s so much more than that. 

I can place myself right back in ’79 when I watch The Visitor even though I didn't see it until fairly recently. It becomes both dreamlike and hyper-real, since hyper-real dreams are a thing with me in general (but especially so back then). 

For me, The Visitor captures 1979 in the same way Liquid Sky captures 1981 and Repo Man captures 1983. It’s a weird, elusive thing, but I can practically taste it when I watch those movies. 

I wasn’t in England at the time (I was in New England) so I can’t rightly say how well The Quatermass Conclusion captures the ’79 zeitgeist there. Especially since the screenplay was originally written in 1972. But it’s most definitely emblematic of its type and the alien-apocalypse theme and mass cult suicide scenario fit right in trailing the wake of Jonestown. 

You can tell Nigel Kneale was a bit tetchy about aging out of the business since the series is essentially about how stupid and useless young people are and how clever and resourceful older folks were, even when forced to live underground.

The Sexual Revolution had gotten to a point that Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione convinced himself that the multiplexes were ready for highbrow hardcore porn. He spenthouse a shit-ton of his own money on top-flight British acting talent only to discover that, no,  the multiplexes were not in fact ready for highbrow hardcore porn.

America wasn’t even ready for hardcore porn as a subplot, as Paul Schrader discovered in 1979. Or maybe it’s just a pretty crappy movie. I mean, Hardcore is an OK way to waste a hour or two, but it’s definitely not an unfairly-shunned classic like William Friedkin’s Cruising would be the next year. Still, suits the atmosphere of the times.

A lot of younger people can’t appreciate just how violent things used to be, especially in the 70s. And it wasn’t limited to the cities; parents seemed to decide en masse that supervising their kids was too much bother and let them run wild. And by them, I mean “me.” 

Maybe it was just how I perceived it, but I remember a constant aura of violence, fighting and general menace. Gang fights were all over the place in NY and LA etc, but also in the ‘burbs: I remember there used to be town fights at the Pits between Braintree kids and Randolph kids. Because, hey: they might be like us in every other conceivable way, but they live on the other side of that imaginary line. Which is why they need to be smacked upside the head with this here hockey stick.

Anyhow, this is Matt Dillon’s first movie and is all told a pretty decent document of what was going on in a lot of towns.

The Warriors is a Hollywood air-brushing of the ninth circle of Hell New York City had become at the time. I thought it was very silly, but oddly mystical. Or maybe oddly magical-realist. By which I mean it’s more a mythological saga of gang violence in the 70s than it is any reflection of reality. But I very vividly remember the TV ads for it. And I remember the Joe Walsh version of “In the City,” which I thought was much better than the Eagles version a few months later.

And Justice for All is a more realistic look at the basket case New York City was at the time, and is now becoming again. And I didn’t know a single kid at the time who didn’t shout “No, you’re out of order!!!” at least once.

I’d actually read the book this movie was based on before I saw it. It wasn’t at all how I pictured any of the settings or characters, other than the Fordham Baldies being bald (which seemed like a foreshadowing of the skinheads to come). That said, it’s a good movie. Of course, it’s not set in 1979 and doesn’t really capture the zeitgeist, but there are worse ways to spend 90 minutes of your life.

The movie adaption of The Who’s rock opera Quadrophenia hit the theaters in 1979, with Sting - Mr. 1979 himself - in a supporting role as a British Fonzi with a bleached-blonde bob. It’s set around the same time as The Wanderers and depicts the same kind of aimless violence young men used to engage in before there were video games to pacify them. Considering the level of gang violence on the streets of England at the time, I bet the film’s rumbles were oddly comforting to aging Mods and Rockers.

This Ray Winstone vehicle may be a better reflection of the time.

This really isn’t what I consider a great movie, but it’s a great totem of 1979’s aura. It was highly regarded at the time but almost completely forgotten today, and hasn’t aged particularly well. But the synchronicity of its release coinciding with a meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania two weeks later cannot be denied. 

I don’t think you need to watch it, but it can’t hurt to familiarize yourself with the story behind. Three Mile Island had a huge effect on the public mood, adding yet another of apocalyptic anxiety in a year that had more than enough of those.

Star Crash is another of a whole string of cheesy Star Wars knockoffs - most of which at least felt like they Italian - which lasted well into the 1980s. This one has a cult following in some geek circles, which I reckon has mostly with do with a scantily-clad Caroline Munro running hither and yon. But the effects are trash and I don’t find any of it particularly engaging, truth be told. I think it was released in Europe in 1978, which is really where it belongs. 

So why include it here? I don’t know. Just trying to pass the time, I suppose.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture was released around the same time the Nine took over Esalen. Which is doubly interesting given that Esalen and the Nine are all over the Star Trek franchise, going back to the original series. 

This is the only Trek film Gene Roddenberry produced and it shows. He’d be replaced by Harvey Bennett for the follow-up, but Bennett’s Trek films were always merely efficient, and lacked the grandeur and wonder of the first film.

If you were a kid in 1979, you had no doubt that The Amityville Horror was 100% true and accurate. Having my own experiences with haunted houses, I know I certainly did. I read the book at the time - I used to read so very many books before the Internet destroyed my attention span - and it all seemed on the up-and-up to me. The debunkings of it have been as entertaining to watch as the movie itself, and it certainly had a huge influence on The Conjuring movies and The Haunting of Hill House mini-series on Netflix.

Winter Kills, one of the last of the great 70s conspiracy movies, was in the theaters for about five minutes so everyone else saw it on video. There’s a very interesting backstory on how this JFK/RFK allegory got effectively suppressed, so check out the documentary on it.

The Jerk is a movie you could never get away with making today, but was a huge hit at the time. I saw it a couple years later - on videodisc, of all things - after Steve Martin had peaked as a comedy phenomenon. Sadly, I didn’t find it nearly as hilarious as I wanted to, or as funny as my friends did. But anything with the young Bernadette Peters is worth seeing, even if just for the young Bernadette Peters. Weirdly, I’ve always thought this came out in 1980. It feels like a 1980 movie to me.

I watched the remake of Nosferatu quite some time ago and came away with three basic notions. First was that Klaus Kinski didn’t look a stitch as terrifying as Max Schreck did in the original. Second was that Isabelle Adjani may be one of the most beautiful women in the entire history of cinema. Third was that I quite liked the Popul Vuh score.

For my money, Salem’s Lot is a better remake of Nosferatu. I have this on DVD too. Can’t say it’s aged well, but you can say that of so many things.

I haven’t seen this Ausploitation flick yet, but it’s directed by Rod Hardy of X-Files fame, co-stars Henry Silva of Outer Limits fame and David Hemmings of Blow-Up and The Eye of the Devil fame, and has a very tasty-looking cult/conspiracy angle to it. In other words, it was made exclusively for me. Anyone seen this one? Give us a review in the Den.

I watched bits of Patrick, but I think I need to watch the whole thing without any distractions. This one is kind of an Ausploitation spin on Carrie and The Fury. What I’ve seen of it seems to jibe with the ’79 vibe, I can say that much for certain. Again, if you’ve seen it, drop us a line in the Den.

Same goes for this one, which has a very MKULTRA vibe to it. That would most certainly be ’79-appropriate; there was quite of lot of it on TV, in the movies, on the radio and hovering in the Ether.

This one I need to watch for potential Sibylry, given the topic. I’m thinking there may be some important synchery afoot. Possibly some Shimmery activity as well. Oftentimes you can study something carefully and not see any Sibylry at large, then you can look again a few days later and suddenly there it is all over the place. That’s how the Shimmer works. 

It’s really something to experience. When you’re ready to believe, that is.

Speaking of the Shimmer, I hear this one here was a big influence on Annihilation, alongside The Colour Out of Space. Which means I definitely have to watch it. Sibylry most assuredly awaits.

For instance, a wolf in a river.

Sixties heartthrob Terence Stamp had kept a low profile for the most part but popped up in 79, playing Lubovedsky in an adaption of Gurdjeff’s Meetings with Remarkable Men, of all things. My definitive Quatermass - Andrew Keir - pops up as well.

Monty Python spoofed Biblical epics with The Life of Brian, which in many ways was their last hurrah as a troupe. They’d pop up for The Meaning of Life in 1983 (naturally) but that was just a mish-mash of leftover sketches with only one truly hilarious scene. I remember we snuck into this (we never paid for movies) after playing the “Let’s get as high as we possibly can” game. That was probably a mistake.

I saw this one at the Drive-Ins too, the Neponset Drive-In, to be exact. In a double feature with The Girl Can’t Help It, which was an odd choice. I was kind of over the Ramones at the time but this is a very hard movie not to love. It’s a gas to see PJ Soles - pushing 30 at the time and looking it - play a high school girl with a crush on Joey Ramone. 

It’s hard to imagine now, but Ramones music - and punk rock in general - felt incredibly alien and surreal at the time. And it’s always fun to watch Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov do their thing. Suicidal Tendencies sure seemed to think so. 

I heard the producers’ first choice for the film were Cheap Trick and it’s absolutely hilarious when you realize that Joey Ramone was playing scenes written for Robin Zander.

Peter Sellers' swan song is a lost classic and always reminds me of Altered States for some reason. I read this book as well. I think my dad had it in hardcover. Sadly, Jerzy Kozinski, who wrote the book the film was based on, pulled his own plug in 1991, at the age of 57

Well, there you have it: a nice little time machine back to 1979. Give it a go, whether you're reliving it or living it for the first time. Trust me: it will help you understand what's in store for us in 2022.

Tell us seventy-nine stories in the Den of Intrigue.


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