“The Poseidon Adventure” (1972) and “The Towering Inferno” (1974) were two seminal big-budget disaster action flicks produced by Irwin Allen. They were both based on popular novels, they both had all-star ensemble casts, and they both found their way to network television fairly quickly. They were both pretty decent flicks, too, I think … although I admittedly only saw them broadcast when I was very young. (My best guess is that I caught them sometime around 1979 or 1980; I’d have been in the second or third grade.)
They both made a big impression on me. Although “The Poseidon Adventure” is probably the better known of the two, it was “The Towering Inferno” that truly got under my skin. It had its share of frightening sequences — at least by 1970’s standards.
The one I remember the most is one of its two famous “elevator scenes.” After the plot-driving fire breaks out to create the titular burning high-rise, some panicking partygoers try to take an elevator directly to the street, past the burning floors — even after they’re warned not to try such an escape route. The result (which you can see in the third video below) was pretty scary stuff, at least to a kid my age, just before 1980’s action films would thoroughly desensitize me to this sort of thing. (It was not a decade known for nonviolent movies.) The outcome of the scene sent a pretty big message to me about the importance of following the authorities’ instructions during a disaster.
Both “The Poseidon Adventure” and “The Towering Inferno” were also among the paperbacks that littered the backseat of my father’s car. (Cars and closets and coffee tables in the house where I grew up were veritable small libraries; my father wasn’t reading Joyce or Dostoevsky, but lord knows that man read a lot.) In the case of the latter film, “The Glass Inferno” was the name of the original book by Thomas N. Scortia and Frank M. Robinson. Believe it or not, I can remember asking my Dad what the word “inferno” meant. And I remember being fascinated, for some reason, by the idea that filmmakers could change the name of a story when adapting it. (The people who made movies could do anything they wanted!)
They actually remade “The Poseidon Adventure” a few years back … I saw it, and I might have even reviewed it for this blog. I can’t say that it was memorable, though. Indeed, the only thing I can recall about it was the presence of the priceless Kurt Russell.
Or maybe it was terrific, and I just don’t remember that. I am getting old — after all, I was a second grader in 1979.
Legit question for rural Australians — how do I kill the 30 to 50 feral hogs that run into my yard within 3 to 5 mins while my small kids play?
If you’re anything like me, you’re endlessly regaled by all the viral jokes this past week referencing “30 to 50 feral hogs.” (And if you’re nothing like me, then you’re an intelligent adult and I congratulate you. But you can google the new trope, which I have paraphrased above, if you want to. It is the very height of preposterous predatory animal political humor.)
The jokes made me remember this little disappointment from the 1980’s — the Aussies’ own feral hog horror movie, 1984’s somewhat lethargic “Razorback.” If memory serves, I rented this sometime around 1986, I suppose. I got it on VHS from my nearest shopping center’s sole mom-and-pop video store, before Blockbuster Video’s invasion reached my area.
There are people out there who fondly remember “Razorback.” You can find some nice compliments about it over at Rotten Tomatoes. People enjoy its “atmosphere.” People like Gregory Harrison a lot.
I didn’t like it. Sure, it had a pretty neat electronic score that seemed trippy and cool to me as a young high school student. But that was its only redeeming quality. It started off with its depressing plot setup, which you can see in the first video below — the titular wild boar absconds with a baby boy. (The boar also thoughtfully burns the child’s house down as it departs, to underscore that fact that it is an asshole.)
The rest of the movie is boring, because it’s yet another one of those monster movies where you never get to see much of the monster — right up until the movie’s poorly lit climax, which takes place in a slaughterhouse, I think? Which is supposed to be ironic or something? Don’t quote me on this stuff; 1986 was a long time ago. For comparison, think of the legion zombie “thrillers” always available on Netflix where the zombies are always outside, and the movie just follows the indoors arguments among three very-much-alive people inside a windowless warehouse. I want to invoke the inevitable “wild bore movie” pun, but I’m holding back, because my friends tell me that they have enough of that sort of thing.
I used my own money to rent “Razorback,” probably earned from either my confusing stint at McDonald’s (they just didn’t get me there) or my summer job cleaning boats and lobster traps. (I lived on an island, people.) I remember being slightly disgruntled that I’d wasted my hard-earned cash.
Honestly, though, I was a credulous kid when it came to a movie’s marketing. When I read the back of the VHS boxes, I took things at face value. I also had my heart set on something called “The Alien’s Deadly Spawn” (1983), which I realize now was just a no-budget early mockbuster ripping off Ridley Scott’s “Alien” (1979). (It was always out. I finally caught snatches of it on Youtube this past spring, and it looks pretty unwatchable.)
“Mazes and Monsters” (1982) was one of the 1980’s’ weirder television events — it was a made-for-TV movie that was a hysterical cautionary tale about “Dungeons & Dragons.” It was based on a novel by Rona Jaffe that was ostensibly a fictionalized version of a real case, in which a Michigan college student was supposedly driven insane by the role-playing game three years earlier. (The media reports that sensationalized the boy’s disappearance in 1979 were subsequently debunked, so Jaffe’s book was based on what was essentially an urban legend.)
“Mazes and Monsters” was weird and dumb. It was a pretty labored melodrama based on a thin, reactionary premise, and it actually wound up being a depressing story. But its infamy has earned it a kind of ironic, enduring devotion from 80’s pop culture nerds.
And here’s the kicker — it starred Tom Hanks, in his first leading film role, at age 26. Hanks played the sensitive, unstable undergrad who was pushed over the edge, and he actually did a good job with the material. If you’re curious, the entire movie is available for free right here over at TVfanatic.
I never really played D&D. I was a third grader when “Mazes and Monsters” aired on CBS, and by the time I reached high school, role-playing games had been supplanted by video games. I’m not even sure D&D ever had a massive following in my little stretch of New York’s suburbia anyway. My older brother played regularly with a couple of his friends, but the game was hardly spoken of by anyone else. It just never caught on with kids in my age group.
But this movie was something people talked about. They thought the danger it depicted was real. Seriously, look at the newspaper ad below. (Somebody over at Youtube commented that the film was basically “Reefer Madness for D&D,” and I thought that was pretty funny.) Here’s the thing about the world before the Internet — there was obviously no fake news spreading like wildfire online, and that was a very good thing. But neither could you instantly debunk an urban legend. (We still had a few, back then.) If you heard that D&D could make teenagers psychotic, you couldn’t check Snopes.com to verify that. (Encyclopedias were also giant-ass book sets that they advertised on TV, but that’s another story.)
I don’t enjoy panning films that others revere. There’s no percentage in it. I’m not the guy who tries to be edgy or cool by telling you he dislikes something that everyone else loves.
But I do need to tell you that I think that “Phantasm” (1979) is a bad movie. I’d rate it a 3 out of 10, based on some interesting ingredients, but I suspect that even that is a bit generous. I finally managed to make it through its entire running time tonight, and it feels amateurish on every level.
It’s poorly scripted, directed and edited, with performances that are nearly all quite bad. The first exception here is A. Michael Baldwin, who was a decent child actor when this movie was made, and who was quite likable as the story’s adolescent protagonist. The second exception, I suppose, is “The Tall Man” himself, Angus Scrimm, the deep-voiced and admittedly unsettling big-bad.
There’s really only one other positive thing I can say about the movie — it has a damned good set design for its mausoleum. (Somewhat confusingly, the film suggests this is located … inside the funeral home itself? Is that a thing in some places? I honestly don’t know.) The set is simultaneously beautiful and frightening, with symmetrical hallways of contrasting white and red — the kind of thing you’d expect to see in a Stanley Kubrick film. I can’t escape the suspicion that it was somehow pilfered from a far better film.
And I do understand the unconscious appeal of “Phantasm’s” story. We see an adolescent boy who has lost his parents team up with his likable older brother to fight mysterious monsters at their local funeral home. They enlist the aid of the brother’s guitar-playing, everyman best friend, they use everyday weapons like guns and knives, and they bond over the shared experience. It’s a tailor-made, understandable power fantasy for any adolescent boy first grasping adult concepts of death and mortality.
But … those things aren’t enough to redeem the film. In my opinion, it’s bad enough to be a candidate for the “Mystery Science Theater 3000” treatment.
Hey — what do I know? Your mileage may vary. “Phantasm” has a cult following in the horror community, and spawned no fewer than four sequels. (The latest, “Phantasm: Ravager,” was released just three years ago.) You might enjoy it, or you might need to watch it out of curiosity, as I did.
Because I can’t sleep, and you’ve been dying to know. Here they are, in no particular order:
1) “Memento” (2000)
2) “Fight Club” (1999)
3) “American Psycho” (2000)
4) “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968)
5) “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” (1975)
6) “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” (1975)
7) “Natural Born Killers” (1994)
8) Lucio Fulci’s “Zombi” (alternately titled “Zombi 2,” 1979)
9) “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” (1982)
10) “The Big Chill” (1983)
And … worst of all … I’m kinda on the fence about the first two “The Evil Dead” films (1981, 1987), Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange” (1971) and John Carpenter’s original “Halloween” (1978). I am hanging my head in shame here over those last two. I know Kubrick’s film is considered a masterpiece. I saw it twice when I was a college student (once in a psychology class!), soooo … maybe I just wasn’t mature enough to grasp it? Mea culpa, people.
I left “Citizen Kane” (1941) and “Ben Hur” (1959) off the list, because I haven’t seen them in their entirety. I was nonplussed enough to turn those off after 40 minutes or so, but I’m weird about never saying I dislike a movie unless I watch the whole thing. You can add 1979’s “Phantasm” to this category too.
I know, I know … there’s nothing wrong with any of these films (except “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” of course, which is terrible). There are just basic ingredients in them that I somehow fail to appreciate.
Now one of you needs to e-mail me a cure for insomnia.