Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated '85 - John Portanova ""

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Underrated '85 - John Portanova

John Portanova is an independent filmmaker based out of Seattle, WA. He moved to the city so he could be close to the world-famous Scarecrow Video, but it’s also where he makes horror movies with his production company The October People. These films have included the psychological horror story The Invoking and the alien abduction thriller The Device, both of which he worked on as a writer/producer. His directorial debut, the creature feature Valley of the Sasquatch, is currently on the film festival circuit. You can follow him on twitter at @October_John.


I was born on August 2, 1985, the same day Fright Night and Weird Science hit theaters. These films are favorites of mine and represent the two film genres I love most: horror and the teen/coming-of-age film. Since I spend most of my time talking horror, I want to use this list to focus on some underrated teen movies1985 was a big year for teenagers on film; John Hughes released his magnum opus The Breakfast Club and the top grossing film of the year saw a time-traveling teen trying to get Back to the FutureThe movies I’m going to include on this list aren’t up to the standards of those modern classics, but I enjoy them all for a variety of reasons. There are many more movies from ‘85 that I love, but I wanted to focus on some films that deserve a second look and haven’t been featured on previous “Underrated ‘85” lists.

MISCHIEF (1985; Mel Damski
Mischief fits into the mold of my favorite kind of teen movie, the “hang out” film. These stories don’t center on a big game the characters are training for throughout the film and don’t feature an action climax, instead the characters and their development take center stage. We get to hang out with them and enjoy their relationships without an overarching storyline pushing them from scene to scene.Sometimes these films take place over the course of oneday like The Breakfast Club or Dazed and Confused.Mischief is more in line with Fast Times at RidgemontHigh; we stick with the characters throughout the school year, seeing important milestones and tracking their development.

At the start of Mischief, we are introduced to Jonathan (Doug McKeon, On Golden Pond). Jonathan is a shy teenager with few friends who spends most of his time lusting after Marilyn (Kelly Preston, Jerry Maguire), the girl of his dreams. When a cool new kid named Gene (Chris Nash, The Wraith) moves in next door, the two polar opposites become friends and Gene makes it his mission to help Jonathan get laid. On paper it sounds like a lot of lowbrow teen sex comedies, but Mischief is more sophisticated than you might expect.

The main thing that sets Mischief apart from many of its contemporaries is that it is a period piece. The film takes place in 1956 and everything from the wardrobe to the soundtrack makes it feel like a ‘50s movie. But since the film was made in the ‘80s, its teenage characters are able to do things that never would’ve gotten past the censorsdecades before. Jonathan and Gene have frank discussions about sex and curse just like any teenager I’ve ever met. It adds a real air of authenticity to the characters and the world they inhabit.

I also love that Mischief isn’t just a series of gross-out gags featuring stereotypical characters, a trap a lot of lesser coming-of-age films fall into. Jonathan doesn’t strike out with the ladies because he’s a caricature of a nerd with giant glasses; he’s just a regular guy who lacks confidence.The women in the film, including co-stars Catherine Mary Stewart (Night of the Comet) and Jami Gertz (The Lost Boys), are given more to do than merely be eye candy.They add to the drama and comedy of the film just as much as their male counterparts. And although the film’s most famous moment is a sex scene, it isn’t a set piece built around leering at the characters. We may get nudity, but the filmmakers are more concerned with the sweet and funny interaction between the characters than hitting a skin quota.

I may have been born after this film was released and decades after it takes place, but the makers of Mischiefhave done such a good job portraying what it’s like to be a teenager that every time I watch it I feel as if I’m being transported back to my own adolescence. That’s the power of a great coming-of-age film and Mischief is one of the best that not enough people have seen. 

MY SCIENCE PROJECT (1985; Jonathan R. Betuel
During the summer of 1985, the science fiction teen film reigned supreme at the multiplexes. Back to the Future, Weird Science, Explorers, and Real Genius were all released in quick succession over the course of about one monthMy Science Project wrapped up the cycle and although it doesn’t reach the heights of the films it followed, it is an enjoyable teen adventure that could only have been made in the ‘80s.

Christine’s John Stockwell plays Michael Harlan, a gearhead who cares more about his car than anything else. His obsession with machinery costs him his popular girlfriend and could cost him his graduation. Michael’s science teacher Mr. Roberts (Dennis Hopper, Blue Velvet) tells him that if he doesn’t come up with a standout science project within days, he will fail the class. So Michaeldecides to sneak into a junkyard for military aircraft while on a first date with nerdy Ellie (Danielle von Zerneck, La Bamba). While there Michael discovers a strange machine that opens rifts in time after absorbing large amounts of electricity and is much harder to control than Michael everexpected.

The climax of My Science Project sees Michael and his friends making their way through their high school as the machine causes chaos with the space-time continuum. Every room they enter puts them in a different time period. It’s obvious that much of the budget went into this sequence and while it is enjoyable, I was struck by how it could never be made today. Our leads face mortal danger in the school from a wide variety of villains: gladiators, the Viet Cong, post-apocalyptic mutants, and even a (not entirely convincing) Tyrannosaurus Rex. What do our heroes do to protect each other in this situation? Mow down their enemies with machine guns, of course. These days you would be hard pressed to find any screenwriter who would have teenagers saving the day by running into a high school with automatic weapons. Even fewer would have the leads of their teen comedy murder dozens of people. It makes for a unique tone that I’ve found belongs squarely in the ‘80s: light, fluffy comedies with a smattering of violence and a decidedly un-PC attitude.

My Science Project is definitely a film where the special effects are the main draw and most of the storytelling effort has been put into action set pieces. But that’s not to say there’s nothing interesting going on character-wise. Michael is someone whose academic future is the last thing on his mind, but he isn’t portrayed as a jock or bully. He’s a soft spoken guy whose world revolves around cars andcan’t be bothered with anything else. Ellie feels a little more like a stereotype at first, the nerdy girl who works for the school paper, but the film makes her a more proactivethan usual girlfriend character by having her make the first move and start getting Michael to open up. Once Ellie and Mike’s romance begins to blossom, the relationship between these two outsiders becomes one of the most enjoyable aspects of the picture. 

Unfortunately writer/director Jonathan R. Betuel (Theodore Rex) keeps the rest of the cast (outside of the very amusing Hopper) as high school stereotypes. Nerds wear satellite dishes on their heads when spying on girls and Michael’s best friend Vince (Fisher Stevens, Short Circuit) is a wannabe tough guy from Brooklyn who spends all of his time talking about his favorite TV shows. It’s quite obvious that Betuel thought Vince would be the breakout character from the film. This is most evidenced as the end credits rolland we are treated to two hallmarks of 80s movies: the recap and the theme song. As “My Science Project” by The Tubes plays on the soundtrack we are shown still images of scenes from the film we just watched. Every so often a clip from the film will pop up in place of a still, but these aren’tscenes from the movie. What we are shown is a series of deleted jokes and lines, all from Vince. The people behind the film were under the mistaken impression that everything Stevens was doing was gold and they couldn’t bear the thought of leaving anything he delivered on the cutting room floor. I didn’t hate Stevens’ performance by any means, but I was only genuinely amused by his shtick when he thought death was imminent during the fight with the T-Rex. As the end approaches Vince bemoans, “17 years of TV down the drain.” Now that’s a feeling of regret I can relate to as I imagine my final moments, which I can only hope will feature a rubber dinosaur.

THE HEAVENLY KID (1985; Cary Medoway
The next film on our list is a sort-of mirror image of the aforementioned Back to the Future. In that film, an ‘80s kid finds himself stuck in the ‘50s. In The Heavenly Kid, a rebel from the early ‘60s finds himself the guardian angel of an ‘80s dweeb. Both films feature fish out of water jokes from our heroes out of time and make sure to give a healthydose of sincerity and heart.

The Heavenly Kid begins back in the ‘60s. We meet resident greaser Bobby Fantana (Lewis Smith, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai) as he plays a dangerous game of chicken. He assures his girlfriend (Jane Kaczmarek, Malcolm in the Middle) that everything will be alright, but a simple mistake ends Bobby’s life in a fiery car crash. Bobby quickly awakens on a subway train and is informed that he has died. Before he can get into Uptown (heaven), Bobby must stay on this subway train in limbo until he can be assigned a task that could earn him his way to eternal bliss. Bobby is finally let off the train in the ‘80s and given his assignment; befriend nerdy Lenny Barnes (Jason Gedrick, Iron Eagle) and act as his guardian angel. 

This set-up leads to the jokey first act wherein Bobby tries to prove to Lenny that he is an angel and can protect him against the bullies who are making his life miserable. The gags in this section range from “Bobby drives a vehicle that to passers-by appears to be moving itself” to “Bobby is shocked at the changes that have taken place in the world since he died”. These sitcom-esque scenarios in the first part of the film will make you think you have this low budget fantasy all figured out, but co-writer/director Cary Medoway (Paradise Motel) has a couple of narrative tricks up his sleeve.

The most interesting twist happens when Bobby comes home with Lenny for the first time. After having his first experience with weed, the angel is shocked to discover thatLenny’s mother is his old flameThis causes Bobby to seriously reconsider if he even wants to continue to help Lenny as that would mean being forced to be around the love of his life after she has moved on and settled down. Eventually Bobby does decide to tough it out with Lenny and even manages to turn the kid from a social pariah to a hip and happening guy. Unfortunately, Lenny lets his newfound popularity go to his head and becomes a jerk to his parents and former friends. 

At its core, The Heavenly Kid is a cheesy teen fantasy that was dated months after opening due to the fashion and music on display. But I still find myself getting into the story and enjoying the nice twists Medoway throws our way. The main reason any of it works as well as it does is because of the solid work from the performers. They bring this world to life and fill it with engaging characters who we hope it’ll all work out for in the end.

TOMBOY (1985; Herb Freed
Tomboy centers on Tommy Boyd (Betsy Russell, Saw III-VII), a female mechanic who’s constantly having to prove her worth to the disbelieving men that enter her shop.Tommy is an avid racing fan and has been toiling away on her own stock car for months during her free time. One day Tommy’s biggest racing idol, Randy Starr (Gerard Christopher, Superboy), stops into the shop and the two immediately hit it off. But after a couple of fun dates, Tommy finds that Randy is too quick to laugh off her intentions of becoming a serious racer. This lack of faith leads to Tommy and Randy being pitted against each other in a stock car race where big time sponsorship, as well as the future of their relationship, is on the line.

Based on that plot description, you’d think that Tomboywould be an empowering film for young female viewers. Tommy is an independent woman who plays by the beat of her own drum and doesn’t give a damn what other people think. Her headstrong attitude and mechanical knowledge make her a target for the less forward thinking of the male population, but she never waivers in her desires. There’s only one problem with viewing the film like this, director Herb Freed (Graduation Day) is only interested in the exploitation potential of making a film about teenage girls. What we end up with is a film that could appeal to budding feminists, but is instead more interested in showing as much flesh as possible to ensure the young boys watching are happy. It makes for a wholly unique viewing experience: a “girl power” movie more concerned with exposing breasts than getting to the heart of Tommy’s quest to be treated as an equal.

Now, just to be clear, I have nothing against breasts. I’m a huge fan. But Tomboy is one of the only films I can think ofwhere nearly every female character is forced to drop her top. When Randy first meets Tommy, a drunken groupie he arrives at the garage with stumbles out of his car with her breasts hanging out of her evening dress. At a pool party thrown by rich kid Ernie (Eric Douglas, half-brother of Michael), 95% of the women in the scene are topless. The only development given to Tommy’s best friend Seville (Kristi Somers, Savage Streets) is that she’s an aspiring actress who uses her sex appeal to try and get ahead. This leads to scenes such as Seville’s sexy audition for a donut commercial and many dance sequences featuring the character in various stages of undress. Even the romantic lead of the movie can’t escape the seediness of it all. When Randy and Tommy have their first fight, it’s while Randy is hanging out in the back room of Ernie’s mansion watching a porno with some friends.

Although I think Freed did this story a disservice by playing it so lowbrow there is still a lot to like aboutTomboy. Betsy Russell is adorable and keeps you interested in Tommy’s plight; she’s easily the best thing about the film. Even if a lot of the jokes are broad, many of them are amusing. There’s also a great supporting performance from Richard Erdman (Community) as Chester, Tommy’s mentor and her employer at the garage.

THE MUTILATOR (1985; Buddy Cooper
Well it turns out I can’t get away from talking horror after all! In ‘80s horror the slasher film reigned supreme. And who were the go-to victims in slashers? That’s right, teenagers. So although many of them were gutted before they could come of age, we saw just as many teenagers onscreen in the ‘80s in slasher films as we did in more typical teen film fare.

The Mutilator is a traditional slasher film that begins in a very untraditional way. Instead of an opening kill that establishes our villain and what he is capable of, we are instead treated to the sight of a young boy by the name of Ed Jr. accidentally killing his mother with a shotgun. Ed was cleaning the gun for his father, an avid hunter, as a surprise for his birthday. For some unknown reason, Ed decides to aim the gun at his mother and pull the trigger. Unfortunately, for another unknown reason, the gun is loaded! When Ed’s father, Big Ed (Jack Chatham, Rockin’ Road Trip), returns home and sees the carnage he attacks the boy, but only for a moment. Following this violent outburst Big Ed walks over to his wife’s corpse and solemnly pours himself a drink. This opening scene is great because it establishes everything we can come to expect from the rest of the film: it makes little sense, features great gore, and is very entertaining in spite of its amateurish qualities. 

Following this matricidal opening, we jump ahead several years and catch up with a teenage Ed Jr. (Matt Mitler,Basket Case 2) at college with a group of friends. We quickly learn that Ed and his father have been estranged ever since the death of his mother, an accident which led to Big Ed becoming an alcoholic. Ed is surprised when hereceives a drunken phone call from his father wherein Big Ed demands that he go out to the family’s beachfront condo and lock it up for the winter. Ed informs his friends of his father’s demands and they all decide that a trip to the beach will be the perfect thing for them to do over fall break.What they don’t realize upon arriving at the condo is that Big Ed is still in the garage. He’s on a raging bender and is hell-bent on making Ed Jr. pay for what happened all those years ago.

The first thing that jumps out at me during the college scenes near the beginning of The Mutilator is the idea of fall break. I’m not sure if it’s an East Coast thing or what, but before this movie I’d never heard of a fall break. I can only imagine that the filmmakers decided that a slasher movie needed to take place on a holiday and so they made up this fictional one, most likely as a different way to refer to Thanksgiving breakFall Break was even the film’s original title until distributors realized that the more bluntThe Mutilator would probably sell more videotapes. 

Whether it’s real or not, after watching The Mutilator you won’t be able to forget about fall break. As Ed and his friends drive to the beach we are treated to one of the most hilarious theme songs of all time in “Fall Break” by Peter Yellen and The Breakers. This ridiculously chipper song would be right at home in a more traditional, cheesy teen film. It does not, however, fit at all in a pretty serious slasher entitled The MutilatorOnce the teens arrive at the condo and the slaughter begins, you’ll feel every gory death scene even more because you were set up for a lighthearted romp during the opening credits. It’s a stark tonal shift that happens again after all the carnage has ended. The film ends on the survivors after they’ve undergone a great deal of trauma and seen everyone they know killed in gruesome ways. As the film fades out on this somber moment, we are treated to the cast laughing through outtakes from the film as “Fall Break” plays once again on the soundtrack and the end credits roll. 

The Mutilator is the only film writer/director Buddy Cooper ever made. I can only assume that the tonal shifts seen in the credit sequences are a result of his inexperiencewith the horror genre. Maybe he’d seen movies featuringtheme songs and outtakes in the past and so he threw themin here thinking that’s what you doBut that’s not to say Cooper did a bad job with the film. Bizarre or not, these “Fall Break” montages are one of the most memorable things I’ve ever witnessed in a low budget slasher. Cooper also excels at the meat and potatoes of every ‘80s horror film: the gory death scenes. If you can track down the unrated version of the film (currently only officially available on VHS), you will be treated to some of the most brutal deaths found in a slasher film. These scenes come courtesy of FX master Mark Shostrom (Evil Dead II), near the start of his illustrious career. One scene in particular disturbed me in a way few slasher deaths have. Big Ed catches one of the girls in the garage and stabs her in the groin with a giant fishing hook. As she squirms in pain, the tip of the hook proceeds to pop out of her abdomenIf you think you have the stomach for scenes such as that or if you find yourself humming along to “Fall Break” after watching the video below, The Mutilator might just be the slasher for you.

1 comment:

Hal said...

Wow, great minds thinking alike: MISCHIEF leads off my list as well, and I considered THE HEAVENLY KID (like the actors, thought the filmmaking was sloppy; it was great to see Niedermayer playing such an atypical character) and TOMBOY as well (they would have made a top 10 for sure but I stopped at 5).

I was the right age for the target audience in '85 (16) and can say that you're spot on about MISCHIEF in particular standing out, for the reasons you discuss.