I lost my virginity in 1985. It happened the night before I turned seventeen, on yon bonny banks of Lake Mohawk in Sparta, New Jersey. My accomplice and I landed there shortly after catching The Bride, a ludicrous, unfortunately pioneering “re-imagining” of Bride of Frankenstein with Sting and Jennifer Beals. Coincidentally or not, The Bridemost assuredly does not make my list of 1985 list. The following films do.
“It is true, that which I have revealed to you,” says Satan to a young boy at the end of Mark Twain’s 1916 novella, The Mysterious Stranger. “There is no God, no universe, no human race, no earthly life, no heaven, no hell. It is all a dream—a grotesque and foolish dream. Nothing exists but you. And you are but a thought—a vagrant thought, a useless thought, a homeless thought, wandering forlorn among the empty eternities!”
That’s heavy, man. It’s heavy for Mark Twain. It’s even pretty heavy for Satan. The themes that power that passage are also about the least likely jumping off point imaginable for a stop-motion animation family film.
Alas, that’s exactly what beats at the dark heart of The Adventures of Mark Twain, a sprawling but meticulously controlled and beautifully executed series of fables that casts the American literary giant as a hero in pursuit ofHaley’s Comet via hot air balloon. Accompanying Twainare his three most famous kid creations—Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and Becky Thatcher.
The Adventures of Mark Twain is a masterwork of Claymation directed by the creator of the technique, Will Vinton. While the bulk of Adventures is upbeat and charming (without diluting Twain’s inherent cynicism), themovie’s “Mysterious Stranger” sequence—which in fact dramatizes much of another late-era Twain deathblow of nihilism, Letters From the Earth—is a spooky, soul-shaking wonder of pitch-black beauty. The entire movie is very, very good; the “Mysterious Stranger” pushes it up into greatness.
Adding to The Adventures of Mark Twain’s overall oddness was it’s being a Clubhouse Pictures release. Clubhouse Pictures was a weirdly anachronistic entity that, circa 1985-86, sought to recreate the storied Saturday matinees of old-time movie-going, wherein kids could be dropped at the theater on a weekend afternoon for a few hours of wholesome entertainment.
Clubhouse Pictures mixed new material, such as Heathcliff: The Movie (1986), He-Man and She-Ra: The Secret of the Sword (1985), and The Adventures of the American Rabbit(1986) with vintage pick-ups, including the extremely Belgian The Smurfs and the Magic Flute (1976) and Hanna-Barbera’s Hey There, It’s Yogi Bear! (1964). To mid-’80s tykes, the latter, especially, must have seemed like moving cave drawings.
The Year of Our Collective Puberty 1985 lacked not for teen movies. My favorite of these, Just One of the Guys, iswell regarded by many other genre devotees and, thus,hardly underrated.
Fraternity Vacation, to pick another example, is affably dumb and gross. Today, it’s mostly noted for featuring young Tim Robbins as a frat jock, but I’ll always love FVfor Stephen Geoffries (the same year he played Evil Ed inFright Night), who stars as the central klutz and the subject of the movie’s tagline, “Wendell Tvedt is the ultimate nerd!”
Heaven Help Us, on the other hand, is a severely flawed gem that’s fallen through the cracks. Pick it up. Andrew McCarthy, Kevin Dillon, Patrick Dempsey, Malcolm Danare play Catholic high school buddies in 1965 Brooklyn. Memorably co-starring as their chronically self-involved horndog pal is—ah, yes!—Stephen Geoffries. That dude had some 1985!
Had it been made a decade earlier, Heaven Help Us would likely be an ethnic, working class, outer borough NYC nostalgia spin on American Graffiti, rife with grit and guts and heard-edged, character-borne humor (the guys inDiner, for example, could be these kids’ older Baltimore cousins).
However, as noted, Heaven Help Us debuted the same year that “Wendell Tvedt is the ultimate nerd!” constituted a poster-worthy selling point. As a result, the movie crowbarsin out-of-place crudeness and slapstick that teen audiences (rightly or wrongly) expected at the time, so it never fully coheres. It’s not dirty enough to work as a Porky’s among the Christian Brothers, but nor is it sophisticated enough to be the Church of Rome’s answer to The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz.
Still, what works in Heaven Help Us works well, maybe even semi-miraculously. Wallace Shawn cameos as a monk who delivers cinema’s most frantic firestorm of a sermon decrying lust, as the camera hilariously cuts to close-ups of his lisping, spit-spraying tongue against his repulsivelyyellow teeth. Pope Paul VI visits New York, and provides McCarthy’s character with a jolt of unexpected spiritual consciousness that’s quicklyundercut when the guys blow off the papal parade to catch a matinee of Elvis in Blue Hawaii.
Bespectacled, corpulent Malcolm Danare is always funny as pompous class intellect Caesar, who refers to himself in the third person (“Caesar doesn’t dance!”) and frets endlessly about being damned to attend Queens College.Dillon is simply great as the smart-aleck tough kid; the screen persona he continues to ride today gets invented right here. McCarthy is a sweet, believable hero.
Finally, Geoffries cannot be under-praised in his near-wordless embodiment of pent-up adolescent sexual combustion. Heaven’s funniest sequence casts him as an altar boy who, in an increasingly crazed montage, cannot contain the toll taken on him by teenage girls with their tongues out for Holy Communion. You’ll feel his pain.
A confession: Patrick Dempsey attended Xavier High School in Manhattan at the same time I did in the mid-’80s. He left to act full time, specifically in Heaven Help Us,which, initially, was titled Catholic Boys. I didn’t know him, but I was rooting for the movie going in. And this Catholic boy still does.
In 1991, a poster for Roberta Findlay’s Tenement cost me acool single dollar at New Jersey’s then-fledgling Chiller Convention. I subsequently spent nearly a decade trying to track down the movie itself.
When I finally came across Tenement down in 2000, the quest proved more than worth it—not just in terms of the film, which is a scalding NYC grindhouse hate-bath, but also for how and where I saw it: in a Queens porno theater at noon during a weekday. I’ll get to the explanation.
Tenement combines The Warriors, Night of the Living Dead, urban revenge exploitation on the order of Vigilante,and Findlay’s own hyperkinetic misanthropy into a Molotov cocktail that the director has called the movie a “revisualization” of her own coming-of-age experiences. Such a claim speaks volumes.
Everyone and everything in Tenement is ugly, and barbarously so. The action takes palce the same South Bronx hell-scape occupied by ’80s Charles Bronson and Italian post-nuke action marauders. It hurts just to look.
The plot follows the takeover of a fully occupied slum apartment building by a multiethnic gang of punk/metal/new wave/roller disco thugs (as was the cinematic practice at the time). The sartorial hooligansbegin their reign of terror in the basement and savagely move up floor-by-floor, slaughtering anyone and anything in their way.
Even by the standards one might expect, Tenement manages to inventively appall. One creep forcibly tongue-kissing anold lady while he slitting her throat offers a fine example.Naturally, since this is a movie and all, a determined band of residents fights back against the onslaught and therein arises the ultra-ultraviolence.
Tenement delivers all the way through. As (pretty much) usual, Findlay’s talent is shocking. Her scary, claustrophobic cinematography electrically sets upsuspense and boils the cauldrons of bloodlust. Roberta Findlay deserves full-on (re)discovery and embracement by today’s vintage exploitation connoisseurs. A single well-traded VHS tape of Tenement is all it would take to get that movement rolling.
So… the porn theater. In January 2000, I happened by the Fair Theater near LaGuardia Airport in Queens. It was an old movie palace that, many years earlier, had converted to playing porn. I remembered the name from classic NY Postadult movie ads I memorized as a kid (you had your hobbies, I had mine).
Ever the cinematic detective, I made my way inside the Fair, past a “Next Attraction” poster for 1974’s O.J. Simpson opus The Klansman (!), and witnessed a wonderland of perversion—and not just the kind you’d expect (though there was that, too).
Due to a late-‘90s New York zoning law, adult businesses had to relegate 70% of their space to non-sexual material.This proved to be a boon for VHS collectors as peep shows bought out and re-sold old mom-and-pop video storeinventories, and it led to some supremely weird bedfellows in terms of X-rated big screen attractions.
The Fair consisted of one huge auditorium, two small video screening rooms, and then a bunch of smut venues in back. It’s the size of an Atlantic City casino. The day I was there, the main screen President Nixon’s “Checkers” speech was being projected on the main screen. I tricky-dick you not.
One of the offside sitting rooms featured a kung fu film. The other was showing Tenement. Such strokes of luck seem not possible (and that is the one and only time I’ll ever write “stroke” in a porn theater context and sincerely mean: no pun intended). I sat. I watched. I loved it.Tenement rules.
1985 was the last, some would reasonably argue best year of the golden age of American horror that kicked off in 1968 with Night of the Living Dead and then finally splattered to a halt after climactically pumping out Day of the Dead, Demons, Fright Night, Phenomena, Re-Animator, Return of the Living Dead… the list really does go on.
On the other end of the quality spectrum—but no less enjoyable—I’ve always loved the maniacally cobbled-together anthology Night Train to Terror, in which God and the Devil debate the worthiness of humanity while on board the titular vehicle. Their fellow passengers include a rock band of break-dancing preppies who sing right into the camera: “Everybody’s got something to do!/Everybody but YOU!” (in Psychotronic Video magazine, publisherMichael Weldon hilariously called that “a mean message to people watching this movie”).
Only one other schlocktacular ’85 horror release genuinely rivals Night Train to Terror for its combustive comminglingof inanity and insanity: the sci-fi/horror/teen-sex-comedy vehicle for both wizening screen veterans and porn stars hoping to cross over to (this version of) the mainstream,Evils of the Night.
In essence, I could just type out the names in the cast and end the review right there. That would be enough of a recommendation: John Carradine, Julie Newmar, Tina Louise, Aldo Ray, Neville Brand, and Amber Lynn.
The plot essentially beams teen-killing space aliens into aFriday the 13th semi-spoof. Carradine, Newmar, and Tina Louise—who had spent years attempting to play down her role as Ginger on Gilligan’s Island for being “stupid”—play aliens. Aldo Ray and Neville Brand attempt slapstick as best as their lumpen bodies can as bumbling automechanics. Sex and nudity comes courtesy of those from whom you’d expect it.
Evils of the Night played actual theaters and boasted an incredibly cool poster that resembled a comic book cover. Its shoddiness, haphazard assembly, and we’re-not-even-trying production values make it a bellwether of the decades of straight-to-video crapola to come but, still, it’s a marvel to behold. They don’t make them like Evils of the Night anymore because, let’s be grateful, they only madeEvils of the Night once.
By the mid-1980s, teenage prostitution a nonstop hot-button fodder for news reports, talk shows, TV movies,serious documentaries, and, of course, grindhouse epics. Among that last batch, the Roger Corman-produced Angel(1984) instantly stood out by way of its tawdry tagline, “High school honor student by day, Hollywood hooker by night!”
Angel also happened to be an admirably nutzoid endeavor that expertly utilized real-life Los Angeles gutter locations and elicited killer supporting performances from a cast of veteran oddballs.
The following year, Corman put out an East Coast answer film, Streetwalkin’, that, while unsung when compared toAngel, is a scrappy, nasty exploitation nugget that now doubles as a priceless snapshot of ferociously rottenmid-’80s Manhattan.
You’ve seen Streetwalkin’s plot in a hundred other sleaze spectaculars (not to mention Pat Benatar’s famously stupid“Love Is a Battlefield” music video). An innocent but haunted young Midwest beauty deboards a bus in the bigcity, where she’s immediately set upon and turned out by a vile, violent pimp, from whom she will eventually have toflee. Along the way, our feisty heroine befriends seasoned sex suppliers and street character and, oh yes, she gets naked.
Melissa Leo elevates Streetwalkin’ straightaway as Cookie, the lead underage professional orgasm provider. In recent years, Leo has come to be regarded as one of our great “actor’s actors,” and she brings riveting, even uncomfortable intensity to her every performance, most memorably as Mark Wahlberg’s mother in The Fighter(2011) and as a date rapist on a 2012 episode of TV’sLouie. Resplendent and redheaded in Streetwalkin’, the dewy young Leo is largely unrecognizable—until she commences acting.
Dale Midkiff (Pet Sematary) is Duke, Cookie’s “manager.” If he doesn’t quite soar to the operatic repulsiveness of Wings Hauser as Ramrod in 1982’s Vice Squad, well—who does? Julie Newmar, who appears to stand seven feet tall and utterly mesmerizes while exclusively sporting red lingerie outdoors, defines the concept of “knockout.” The ex-Catwoman plays Queen Bee, a de facto matriarch of ill repute.
What renders Streetwalkin’ uniquely invaluable, though, is that, unlike every other NYC-based sex shocker of its era, its action pointedly does not take place in the legendary sin cesspool of Times Square and 42nd Street. Instead, director Joan Freeman shoots on and around the (then) scary, scummy corner of 3rd Avenue and 14th Street.
Having attended high school just a few blocks north and west, I knew the intersection of 3rd and 14th intimately. Yes, hookers walked the area (some even on par with Cookie and Queen Bee), disease-radiating sex businesses opened and closed regularly, and drug peddlers pushed with impunity.
The corner’s real draw for me, though, was the Variety Photoplays theater—an ancient venue that ran typical R-rated B-flicks during the week, then switched to hardcore porn for a 72-hour marathon between each Friday and Monday.
Next door to the Variety stood the Dugout, a gloriously rundown beer joint that boasted of its frozen mugs and welcomed anyone with a single dollar—regardless of age, sanity, or even identifiable humanity—to enjoy a full and frosty sampling.
Both the Variety and the Dugout are now long gone, but they loom large in Streetwalkin’—as they will, always and for-freakin’-ever, in this viewer’s heart (and various other damaged internal organs).