Daniel Budnik is the co-author of Bleeding Skull!: A 1980s Trash Horror Odyssey. He is currently at work on another book and a new blog, possibly focused on BJ & The Bear. He believes the world is ready for it.
Haunted Gold: (1932) This is the year I discovered the Western. More specifically, the year I discovered the super cheap B-movie western. This film is one in an endless series of wonderfully entertaining Westerns that John Wayne made beforeStagecoach. (Wayne himself said that he made about 80 of them in the 1930s.) Most of them were under an hour. All of them are delightful straightforward westerns where Wayne saves the day with his horse, Duke. Haunted Gold is the story of a haunted gold mine, a hooded serial-style villain, a bunch of mean guys, some cool caves and some awesome stunts. The film goes from silly to creepy to very exciting in the blink of an eye. And, to keep costs way down, apparently Wayne was dressed to match a silent film cowboy star. The studio would re-use the riding sequences and stunts from the silent films here. Love it! The pacing may be a bit rough for modern viewers with ZAS.* But, if you can get into this one, there are so many others. I’ve seen six of them and I’ve enjoyed them all.
The Bulldog Drummond Series: (1937-1939) This is a series of eight films made in quick succession all based around the super-pulpy adventures of Hugh “Bulldog” Drummond, flying ace, suave guy and hero. Ray Milland stars in the first one. John Howard stars in the remaining seven. I had watched a couple of these in 2013. But, in 2014, I spent one week watching all eight in order. I had a fantastic time. They are light-hearted adventures. Hugh, his sidekick, Algy and faithful butler, Tenny, are all about having a good time. They’re brave but goofy guys. The villains, however, are all played deadly serious. Throw in Hugh’s long-suffering fiancée, Phyllis, and you have the perfect low-budget Adventure Stew. The element of the series that really surprised me was the fact that there is continuity between the eight films. In the first film, Hugh meets Phyllis. In the second film, they’re getting engaged. In the remaining films they keep trying to get married but adventures get in the way. By the time of the final film, the big question becomes: Will they ever become a happily married couple?
The order to watch the films in is: Bulldog Drummond Escapes, Bulldog Drummond Comes Back, Bulldog Drummond’s Revenge, Bulldog Drummond’s Peril, Bulldog Drummond in Africa, Arrest Bulldog Drummond, Bulldog Drummond’s Secret Police and Bulldog Drummond’s Bride.(At the moment, they are all on Hulu Plus thanks to Criterion. They look fantastic.)
Magic Christmas Tree: (1964) it’s only one hour long and it is an hour well-spent. A boy is given a special ring from a witch at Halloween. The ring grows a magic Christmas tree in the boy’s backyard. The tree grants three wishes. Then, things start to go wrong in unexpected and strange ways. The only Christmas film I’ve seen that actually begins on Halloween, includes Thanksgiving and ends at Christmas. It has that great 1960s super-cheap “kids will watch anything” vibe. It comes from the same world as Santa and The Ice Cream Bunny and Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. And, although Magic Christmas Tree is slow as molasses, I enjoyed it almost as much as Jimmy the Boy Wonder, which is my touchstone for greatness in the land of movies for bored kids.
The Courier of Death: (1984) This is the type of action film that I love the most in the whole wide world. A completely strange film that seemed to come out of nowhere (actually Portland, Oregon) and tell an odd story in a weird, compelling way. I don’t want to ruin anything about it. I went into it having only seen the poster and thinking “Courier of Death? What?” I will say that it’s about a high-stakes courier named J.D. Blackman.J.D. gets mixed up with some bad guys. Things escalate. If the synths over the opening credits don’t grab you, you may already be dead. (Or words to that effect.) Put this one in the arena withRescue Force, Games of Survival and Kill Squad.
Heavenly Bodies: (1984) The best movie ever, possibly. Samantha starts her own aerobics studio with some friends. She competes with some bitchy high-profile gals for the coveted top spot on a local aerobics TV show. The Rocky formula is twisted about and placed into the world of aerobics and it works! There are long scenes of groups of people doing aerobics. There are long scenes of Samantha doing aerobics by herself. The whole thing ends in an Aerobics competition, a la a marathon dancing contest. It is all incredibly charming and they mention pierogis. You got me! Plus, if you don’t fall in love with Cynthia Dale after watching this, your heart is made of ice and you are not welcome in my home.
War Bus: (1986) I watched a lot of action films this year. Many of them Italian. Many of them set in Vietnam. Most of them have varying levels of violence. Varying numbers of rows of people jerking around and falling to the ground in a hail of bullets. Many of them are pretty interchangeable. But, War Bussurprised me. It starts off, during the war, with several American Marines commandeering a missionary bus going through the worst areas of Vietnam. The Marines are exactly like all the other Marines in film: tough, obnoxious and annoying. The missionaries are pious and a little weird. But, somewhere in there, amongst all the action, characters develop. I’m not sure when and how it happened but it did. The characters become interesting. The relationships between the characters become strong. I didn’t want to see anyone on the bus die. It all culminates in a fairly tragic skirmish involving endless waves of Vietcong. But, it’s heroic and it’s good. I have not seen the semi-sequel yet. However, it stars Mark Gregory so I am hoping for big things.
Ninja: Silent Assassin: (1987) Godfrey Ho and Joseph Lai give the world a ninja movie to end all ninja movies! Until they made another similar one a few months later… and that’s not counting the one they made a few months before this. In the 1980s, Ho/ Lai shot a whole bunch of footage, generally featuring Australian actors like Richard Harrison, of men (sometimes women) dressed as “ninjas.” These were not the black clad ninjas of history. These ninjas wore purple, pink, yellow, camouflage. And they also wear bright headbands that said “NINJA” on them. They were the best of all possible ninjas:joyous, dangerous fops of the martial arts world. Ho/ Lai would then intercut this “ninja” footage with footage taken from an older (generally) Hong Kong film of some sort (not always action). The “old” footage would be dubbed in such a way that it would match (-ish) the storyline in the new footage. This is how great films are born! Ninja: Silent Assassin features (from what I’ve seen) the largest amount of “ninja” footage in any of them. There’s a guy named Gordon. A wife gets killed. Revenge must be carried out. That is intercut with a Hong Kong action filminvolving drug smuggling. The “ninja” footage is hilarious. The “old” footage, apart from some hysterical dialogue, actually features some great fight scenes and stunts. Try this one. If you like it, the others will take you to all sorts of odd places.
Fireballs: (1989) First, we had Animal House. Eventually we had Police Academy. Then, in Canada (where Police Academywas made), we received Recruits. Then, we ended withFireballs, which was made by several people who worked onRecruits. Fireballs is about a screwball bunch of firemen and firewomen and the wacky bunch of adventures they get into. Except there is no real feeling that anyone involved in the film gave a crap about anything but getting young ladies naked in front of the camera. The film is dumb to an extreme that almost makes the viewer feel as if their intelligence has been truly and roundly insulted. (I got over it.)Many of these types of films specialize in very obviously drawn stereotypical comic characters. Also, many of them have no real plots until the end when the main characters “make good.” In this film, all the women and the men are the same. (Except for one really dumb guy.) And the closing “make good” sequence is so half-assed (and features some very odd chronology) that it doesn’t actually register as the end until the credits suddenly roll. It’s also, oddly, mean-spirited in the way it treats its characters. This may sound like a recipe for a disastrous evening of film. But, this is truly the reductio ad absurdum of 1980s T&A comedies. My biggest recommendation: I got the VHS in the mail. I watched the movie. Immediately, I watched it again. It was even better the second time.
Salt & Pepper and One More Time: (1968 and 1970): These are included under Honorable Mention because I don’t remember much about them. TCM showed them early in 2014. I watched them and enjoyed them. But, I need to rewatch them. Sammy Davis Jr. and Peter Lawford play Salt & Pepper, London nightclub owners. In the first film, they get involved with globalEspionage shenanigans. In One More Time, they are in a mansion where they get involved with diamond smugglers. Ienjoyed both of them but they are very different. The first film isa big James Bond-ish/ spy spoof directed by Richard Donner. The second one is a strange Jerry Lewis–style comedy starring Sammy instead of Jerry. The two big things that I remember are:1) In Salt & Pepper, there is a scene involving people sticking their heads out of windows in one of those huge English manor houses. It’s a funny scene and one I’d always wanted to see. 2)One More Time feels like a Jerry Lewis movie because he directed it. The only film he directed that he did not appear in. That makes it feel a little weird. And that feeling of “a little weird” should get you watching.
*Zero Attention Span