Friday, 24 June 2011

In praise of 1984

George Orwell got it wrong. Well, not wrong exactly, just a little premature. His vision of a future typified by perpetual war, pervasive surveillance and public mind control ended up coming true, just a couple of decades later than he'd originally predicted. In the meantime, Big Brother and Room 101 became self-fulfilling prophecies, managing to be even more nightmarish than in Orwell's dark imaginings. Half an hour of interrogation by Nick Hancock would have anyone begging for electroshock treatment.

In the end, 1984 came and went with little fanfare. But rather than a legacy of doublespeak and dystopia, it left behind a remarkable cache of movies. These weren't Palme d'Or gobbling classics, and their screenplays probably won't be appearing on the syllabus of any film studies courses, but they helped to define the viewing habits of a generation. They're films that me and my friends knew off by heart. Blockbusters from an age when films were designed to entertain, rather than generate diverse revenue streams.

In the days before DVD, it was unusual to own any films on VHS. Instead, we had to make do with films that we'd recorded off the TV, scribbling their names into whatever space was left on the sticky label after all the previous contents had been crudely crossed out. Occasionally, a film was a keeper. In which case, it would be extricated from its cardboard coffin, and given pride of place in a beautiful burgundy pleather case, designed to look like a Readers Digest hardback. When I think back on our pretend bookcase of movies, there's a clear bias towards the films of 1984. So much so, I'm prepared to argue that it's my favourite film year of all time. Time to pop open those moulded plastic boxes and see what wonders lurk inside:

The monster movie - Gremlins

For a few glorious months in the summer of 1984, I felt like the coolest kid in school. Of course, the reality is that I was anything but. However, I'd discovered a movie that none of my peers would be able to watch for another 12 months. In Canada, where we'd seen Gremlins on a big screen, the film was rated PG-13, which meant that children could see it as long as they were accompanied by their parents. Months later, when Gremlins opened in the UK, the absence of an equivalent rating meant the the film ended up being classified as a 15, excluding the majority of its target audience. Not that this should have come as much of a surprise.

Looking back now, it's easy to forget just what a dark proposition Gremlins was - vicious little buggers that cause car accidents, attack priests and fire old ladies out of upstairs windows. Consequently, they get stabbed, decapitated, liquidised and, in one gloriously sticky scene, roasted in a microwave. Thanks to the amazing puppetry effects of Chris Walas, the scaly critters were blessed with distinct personalities and managed to remain curiously endearing, thanks to their love of finger puppets, flashing and giant comedy mallets. Although Gremlins ultimately spawned a whole sub-genre of mini-monster movies, it shouldn't really have worked - it's too mean and malicious for the mainstream. Which is probably why it became an instant favourite of mine.

The romance - Splash

As a contemporary retelling of The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen, Splash was responsible for a number of breakthroughs. It gave Tom Hanks' exceptional comic timing a great showcase, it proved that Ron Howard could do more than just play a ginger kid with a crush on the lodger, and it gave the world its first Disney-approved nipple. Keen to distance itself from the film's adult content (John Candy's letter to Penthouse about the horny lesbians), the house of Mouse founded Touchstone Pictures as a way of releasing racier content without making Mickey's ears burn.

Most romantic comedies tend to insist on a fairly chaste relationship for their protagonists, ensuring that they don't sleep together until the end credits roll. But not Splash. Before Daryl Hannah can even speak, she's fucked the frown off Hanks' curiously brow-heavy face. The film also boasts a great early showing from Eugene Levy, long before his career resurgence as the father of a serial pudding abuser. Not everything in the film makes sense, particularly the tropical paradise that seems to exist at the bottom of the Hudson river. But it's hard to hate a film that compelled a generation of young boys to never leave the house without a trouser pocket full of loose change.

The SNL alumni movie - Ghostbusters

Inspired by earlier films like the Bowery Boys' Spook Busters and Bob Hope's The Ghost Breakers, Ghostbusters was originally written with Jon Belushi and Eddie Murphy in mind. When Belushi accidentally turned himself into a full torso flee-floating apparition, it fell to Bill Murray to bring his uniquely laconic improvisational skills to the ensemble. Scary when it needed to be, and funny throughout, it captured the public's imagination with its irreverent take on the afterlife.

Looking back now, the film has a curious right wing air about it, which is odd when you consider the anarchic comic minds that created it. Don't believe me? Listen to all the digs at public sector employees and academia. Or consider the fact that the film's real villain isn't the red-eyed Sheena Easton lookalike, but some bearded tit from the Environmental Protection Agency. In any other film, the well-meaning EPA inspector would be single-handedly responsible for saving the world - here he shuts down the containment system and unleashes hell on New York. I bet this movie gives Michele Bachmann a wettie.

The action movie - The Terminator

Between the two of them, Arnold Schwarzenegger and James Cameron barely had enough star wattage to power a Maglite. But the stars of Orion (the film's distributor) were clearly in alignment, as the output of Cameron's fever dream turned into a career-defining role for the monosyllabic man-mountain. With an iconic outfit and a role that played to his weaknesses, Schwarzenegger let his trigger finger do the walking, as he assassinated his way through every 'Connor, Sarah' in the Yellow Pages.

Stan Winston's mechanical and make-up effects are more jarringly dated than some of the early eighties fashions, but they were revolutionary in 1984. And even though the fundamental paradox at the heart of the time travel story is enough to make you want to remove your own eyes with a flick-knife, Cameron keeps the plot moving like a well oiled machine, albeit one coated in human flesh.

The horror movie - A Nightmare on Elm Street

Audiences were already getting bored with slashers by the time Freddy Krueger reared his ugly head in the Autumn of 1984. Unimaginative film-makers had explored every conceivable holiday and calendar occasion on which some disfigured villain could exact their bloody vengeance. And unless someone was willing to try and turn Secretary Day into 24 hours of dread, it looked as though the Hallmark horrors were finally over. Then along came Wes Craven and his concept of a killer who strikes when you're at your most defenceless, and suddenly it was game on again for the eighties' most enduring genre.

It wasn't just the high concept that marked Elm Street as a distinctive neighbourhood in the horror world, it was the flair with which Craven crafted his story. The kids were believable, even witty, and their fears felt palpable. At one point, the gutsy heroine Nancy realises that her brush with Satan's manicurist have left her with a noticeable grey streak in her hair, commenting "God, I look twenty years old." The film has its fair share of throwaway jump-gags, with enough loud noises and detachable faces to satisfy the party faithful. But there's also an unsettling atmosphere throughout the whole film, keeping the audience guessing whether they're in the real world or a dream. My advice - if there's an incongruous sheep in an industrial setting, chances are you're dreaming.

The star vehicle - Beverly Hills Cop

If you've ever suffered through Oscar, Rhinestone or Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, you'll know that Sylvester Stallone is comic Kryptonite. So it's hard to imagine how Beverly Hills Cop would have turned out, had Stallone taken the lead role in a film that was written with him in mind. Instead, Eddie Murphy, hot off the one-two of 48 Hours and Trading Places, stepped into the role and a comedy classic was born.

Equal parts bullshit and braggadocio, Axel Foley breezed onto Rodeo Drive and gave millions of impressionable kids some dubious advice on what to do with a ripe banana. My first viewing of this film was marred by the fact that I watched it with my stony-faced grandparents. Dad had gone to the video shop to rent a Richard Pryor movie (this was the era of Brewster's Millions and The Toy) and unfortunately got his iconic African American comedians mixed up. As Murphy "fucked" his way through 60 or so F-bombs, my Grandma's lips got thinner and thinner, until I could actually see her gums. Although I was smart enough to know not to mimic the ripe language I'd been exposed to, it took me six months to shake Harold Faltermeyer's fucking theme tune.

The overlooked classic - Top Secret!

Why don't more people know about this film? Val Kilmer may have a reputation for being harder to work with than a discombobulated baboon, but back in 1984 he was clearly game for a laugh. Hot off the success of Airplane, Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker applied their comic stylings to the cliches of WWII resistance movies, stirring in a healthy dose of Elvis and some inspired visual jokes that have to be seen to be believed.

These days, movie spoofs show a complete dearth of inspiration, as an endless parade of cut-price lookalikes simply announce their character name and then fart or call someone a bitch. Top Secret is an Aladdin's cave of surreal sight gags, puerile humour and straight-faced performances. And to this day, I still can't eat a chocolate mousse without giggling like a child. Likewise, "Is this the potato farm?" "Yes, I am Albert Potato." Genius comes in many forms, this film demonstrates several of them.

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