So a funny thing happened while choosing my films for the 1981 edition of Couchzone Movie Club. You see I had a plethora of awesome, interesting, cultish movies that I would have been thrilled to include. The problem was the films I wanted to include I’d already written about in previous editions, back before I adopted year by year format.
Because of the obscurity of some of these movies I thought I would revisit them in this here extra bonus instalment. I’m presenting them in their original form, with the exception of Knight Riders, which was funnily enough was in my first ever “Couchzone Movie Club” and was a little too brief compared to what I’m used to writing now (it’s funny to look back and see how the reviews have got longer as time went on).
If only one person decides to check out one of the films by doing this…..it will be not have been worth the effort, but whatever.
All the Marbles 1981 (also known as The California Dolls)
Another movie that I saw on BBC’s excellent Moviedrome season, All the Marbles is possibly the only good wrestling movie that came out before Mickey Rourke donned a pair of tights 2008. It features Peter Falk (you know, Columbo) as the manager of a ladies tag team The California Dolls trying to make a living on the pro circuit.
Along with clashing with crooked promoters and trying to make ends meet with the stresses of life on the road the team find themselves in a feud with tag champions the Toledo Tigers.
This is not a realistic behind the scenes story like Rourke’s celebrated film and is instead a Rocky style underdog story, where wrestling is presented as a real contest (a nice touch is just before the title match where the referee orders the ladies to wash their makeup off so he can see cuts properly). Although there are nods to wrestling not being totally on the level, the feud between the teams begins when the Tigers complain that the Dolls didn’t allow them to win in front of their home crowd. There are also brief elements of the seedier side of the business with regards to drug addiction (one of the Dolls, Molly, is fighting a substance problem) and the sexual exploration of women wrestlers. At one point the Dolls have to take a booking in a mud wrestling show and later on Iris, going behind her manages back, sleeps with a promoter to ensure their title match.
Wrestling legend Mildred Burke trained the women for the wrestling scenes and this is probably why the action is phenomenal. The final match between the Dolls and Tigers goes on for a blistering twenty minutes of a non stop back and forth war that gets brutal towards the end. Seeing as it features non wrestlers it’s to the actresses credit that it flows and feels like an actual proper wrestling match. Ironically more so than Hulk Hogan or Roddy Piper’s piss poor wrestling movies years later.
The film was not a commercial success, which is a shame because a sequel had been considered which would have seen the Dolls touring the Japanese scene. Considering the women wrestling over there at the time this would have had so many possibilities.
Some will baulk at wrestling being presented as real, but this is one of the finest advertisements for wrestling being a fun entertainment form to watch. For me personally it opened my eyes to checking out the women’s wrestling scene for the first time, opening up the unique athleticism, emotion and glamour that it offers.
2018 note. With women’s wrestling really making massive strides right now and especially with the popularity of GLOW, I really think now is the time to create some awareness of this cult classic and get it a DVD and Blu Ray reissue.
Knight Riders 1981
I first came across this George A Romero movie during the BBC’s much missed cult film series Moviedrome. It’s a weird little movie that starts with a then unknown Ed Harris in what appears to be a medieval woodland setting, dressing into his Knight gear and getting upon his trust stead which happens to be a….. motorcycle.
The Knight Riders are a travelling troupe of motorbike stunt riders, performing medieval themed jousting tournaments in small towns. Harris is the troupe’s leader who wants to conduct affairs on a code of honour based upon the court of Camelot. However as the troupe’s fame grows the rider’s become split on the direction of the act, especially when a promoter offers them an opportunity of television and leading to a disillusioned younger rider (played by cult actor Tom Savini) making a bid for Harris’s leadership.
As well as the simmering civil war amongst the riders, the trope has to deal with clashes with corrupt local police and battles with copycat local motorbike gangs who cause trouble at the shows.
The film has a 70’s outsiders feel to it, of a community trying to live outside of a uncertain modern world. The riders themselves are all outsiders from regular society in one way or another. One of them (Pippin) s struggling to accept he may be gay, several of the women are more comfortable as mechanics and riders. To their King Billy, the trope is an way to find a more honourable way of live by harking back to the romanticism of a fantasy interpretation of medieval life, one with a clear value system.
Even the young rebel Morgan ultimately rejects the indulgence and empty commercialism offered by the television promoters. When doing a glitzy photoshoot for their new show, it’s clear there is no belief or purpose behind it and he’s eager to accept the invitation to return to the fold.
Knightriders is a really original movie. It has the low budget, almost grindhouse feel of Romero’s early Dead Trilogy, which gives the motorcycle stunts and battle scenes a real loud, greasy authentic feel. This motorcycle combat and jousting looks genuinely dangerous and is really impressive. There are also themes of the clash of commercialism against the alternative counter culture, especially prophetic as the 80’s were an era that edged closer towards a consumer society sweeping along with it those who had been part of the 70’s rebellious movement.
It’s a fun, genuine cult movie that gains a lot of heart and meaning out of a frankly bizarre premise.
American Werewolf in London (1981)
I can vividly remember one morning my dad telling me I really should watch a scene from a film he and my mum had watched the night before. My parents were not horror fans either but they had rented a tape called “American Werewolf in London” which they’d heard good things about.
We popped in the Betamax tape (yeah my Dad got convinced that Betamax was going to be the dominant brand in the video wars of the early 80’s, although the beta machine being a lot cheaper than the VHS probably swayed him too) and my dad played for me the incredible scene of the werewolf transformation. I watched transfixed as a young man suddenly starts howling in pain and stares in horror as his limbs begin to stretch and transform into those of a wolf. The metamorphosis over the three minute scene is a wonderful mix of ahead of it’s time makeup, animatronics and clever editing that makes it seem seamless as his body changes to the shape of a wolf, his skin becomes covered in fur, his human screams drift into deep animalistic growls and most stunning of all his face sickeningly forces itself to expanded into the long snout and lupine jaws of a werewolf. Most impressive of all is that this scene happens all in the view of a viewer in a well lit room and does not cheat by hiding it in the shadows.
An American Werewolf in London begins with two amiable American backpackers David and Jack trekking across the UK who pick the wrong night to pass through a remote and spooky “locals only” village in Yorkshire. After accidentally offending the locals of the pub “The Slaughtered Lamb,” the two are forced to leave on the night of a full moon and are attacked by a vicious wolf. Jack is killed and David wounded and later finds out he has become a werewolf and on his first transformation kills six people on the streets of London. He’s also stalked by the physically deteriorating ghost of Jack and his victims who are trapped in a limbo state of the undead until the bloodline of the werewolf is ended and they urge David to kill himself before the next full moon.
Directed by John Landis the film is a departure from the usual horror films set in England (although this is an American production) by having the majority of the story in the bustling city of modern London as opposed to remote villages and stately homes. This makes the plight of the victims scarily relateable at times, especially chilling is the stalking and hunting of a commuter on a near deserted London Underground.
The film also manages to avoid the poe faced, intensely seriousness of horror with a large amount of humour. When David wakes up after his first night as a werewolf he’s naked in a wolf enclosure at London Zoo. He’s forced to steal balloons from a child to cover himself (“A naked American just stole my balloon”) and later he meets up with a horde of his victim in a Soho cinema showing a laughably cheezy porn film.
But while the humour lightens the mood of the film there are still scenes of gore. As well as the awful state of the near skeleton Jack by the end of the film there is the decapitation of a policeman by the werewolf and a serious of violent, surreal nightmares for David, sometimes involving weird wolf soldiers in Nazi uniforms. The film doesn’t draw back on the scares either, as Landis makes the audience jump not simply with the popular double scare gag but with a triple scare that gets the heart pounding.
With it’s mix of true horror and fun laughs American Werewolf in London holds up really well today. Even the special effects remain impressive. The wolf is genuinely scary and formidable looking and while the transformation scene would be easy to accomplish with CGI today, I’m confident it would not be able to match the original for creativity and in conveying the pain involved in the stretching of bone and flesh.
It’s a great, fun horror movie that makes you feel for the plight of it’s lead character and also gets Jenny Agutter naked.
Das Boot (1981)
It stands to reason that a German war film is going to be a more sobering viewing experience. It’s because of this that Das Boot comes across as the most authentic film on the realities of war for it’s combatants.
Das Boot (translated as The Boat), is the story of a German U Boat crew on a mission to disrupt the Allies shipping lines. An immense amount of footage was shot for the film leading to many versions of the film. The original cut ran for 150 minutes with an extended release in 1997 of 208 minutes. The version I first saw as a teenager was broadcast on BBC as a mini series over three nights in instalments of 100 minutes each, which comes in at a whopping five hours in total.
For those three nights I sat with my parents in tense rapture as we followed the fortunes of the men of the U Boat crew. It’s the crew that we became invested in, not the mission, but the everyday Germans who are not political Nazi’s but soliders doing their duty and fighting in service of their country. Through them we feel their long bouts of boredom, the excitement and triumph of the hunt and the unnerving moments of battle when they are the hunted and listening for the sounds of explosions. Worst of all is the fear of suffering the most slow gristly of deaths in the claustrophobic iron tomb when the boat seems on the verge of being trapped at the bottom of the ocean
The crew led by the smouldering, charismatic Captain (played wonderfully by Jurgen Prochnow an actor once considered for the role of The Terminator) take a heavy toll for their time at sea, the uncomfortable and unhealthy confines of the Boat reducing them to pale, gaunt figures by the end of their mission.
WARNING: THE FOLLOWING CONTAINS SPOILERS THAT IF YOU INTEND TO WATCH DAS BOOT (AND YOU REALLY SHOULD) YOU SHOULD LOOK AWAY NOW.
Watching Das Boot in the fashion that I did was a tense experience and there was an almost sickening dread as my family sat down to watch the final instalment and discover the fortunes of the men we’d grown to care so much about. It’s a testament to the film that it made us sympathetic to the fates of men who were actually engaged in fighting against our own country and coming into the final episode all we wanted was these men to get home and through the war safe.
It’s therefore heartbreaking at the end when just as it seems we’re getting a happish ending, with the crew returning to docks to a relived chorus of “It’s a long way to Tipperay” an RAF attack bears down on them. It’s the ultimate kick in the gut as we see the crew who have survived so much in the inhuman confines of the U-Boat, killed one by one in the open air, barely given the chance to enjoy being back on land.
As the mortally wounded Captain watches in shock the sinking U-Boat disappear beneath the water before dying himself, I cried. My Dad looked sad (my dad only cries if Barnsley lose to Sheffield United) while my Mum in floods of tears exclaimed “Bastard English!”
Das Boot is tremendous. It puts war into perspective as how it should be viewed, in it’s ugly, destructive example of the worst in humanity. And the brunt of it borne by ordinary people not monsters, made an enemy only by geographically location. I can think of no finer film to end this piece on.
ESCAPE TO VICTORY (1981)
I love the film “The Great Escape,” I love football and I love Michael Caine.
So it’s like a dream come true that someone thought to themselves “We should make a film like the Great Escape, but have a football match with the POW’s against the Nazi’s in it and you know who should captain the POW’s team? Michael Caine!”
In Escape to Victory Michael Caine is POW Colby a former West Ham player who is approached by a Nazi Major played Max Von Syndow with a proposition to captain an Allies team against a German side in an exhibition football match. Caine agrees unaware that the Major intends to escalate the match into a propaganda exercise in front of a large stadium crowd and broadcast on radio around the world. However the allies have plans of their own and with the urging of a Canadian officer played by Sylvester Stallone intend to use the match as a means to escape at half time.
Caine’s team is made up of real life footballers including Pele (hailing from Trinidad as Brazil was not involved in the war at the time the film is set), Bobby Moore, Ozzy Ardiles, Michael Summerbee. To keep him with the side Stallone is given the role of reserve goalkeeper (in a gruesome scene Caine has to break regular goalie Kevin O’Gallaghan’s arm by stamping on it, thus providing a reason for Stallone to be there) which leads to an ongoing joke that he keeps asking where the goalkeeper should stand for a corner kick. Stallone incidentally reportedly brought the superstar diva attitude to the filming, refusing to speak to Kevin Beattie after losing an arm wrestling match to him and later wanted to score the winning goal in the film, with it having to be explained to him that a goalkeeper doing this couldn’t believably be written in.
There is an unashamed corny feel to the premise, especially when we get to the match itself. For English viewers in particular a match against a baddie team of Germans is always going to appeal to their emotions as it plays on a rivalry which will always be intense for football an non football history. With this German team being Nazi’s it’s really something to get fans teeth into, especially as the referee proves to be heavily biased towards the Germans, disallowing goals and ignoring the dirty tactics of the Nazi side, (even the English commentator on the international Radio broadcast is a Nazi propagandist who plays in fake crowd cheers for the German side).
The match takes on a very “Rocky” vibe to it with stirring dramatic score, slow motion shots as the Allies try to use their skills and teamwork while the Germans are allowed to get away with murder by the ref and kick the shit out their opponents, with Pele uncomfortably being the main target of the violent fouls. Over the top it may be but it’s also incredibly good fun, it draws me in every time I watch it, reducing me to a pantomime audience member wanting to boo and yell at the evil Germans and cheer the inspiring heroes, especially when Pele scores with a dramatic over head kick.
The film has a very loose basis on a real event. Journalist Andy Dougan’s book “Dynamo” is an excellent gripping read of a series of matches that took place between a local team in Nazi occupied Kiev and a Luftwaffe team. Despite a biased referee and implied threats to throw the match, the local team beat the Germans with the final insult being in the final moments of the last match with a Kiev player beating through the defence and goalkeeper and when reaching the goal line stooped the ball and defiantly kicked it back into play. Much of the team were arrested by the Gestapo and spent time in a concentration camp where four were eventually executed.
It’s a stirring and tragic story but sadly bollocks as it appears the myth has taken over from reality over the years. Soviet propaganda has rewritten the events, with the details of the so called “Death Match” being exaggerated, as their is little evidence that the fates of the players was due to the the events of the game, neither does it look like the intimidation to throw the match occurred.
But anyway, real life sucks. Escape to Victory goes for a fun adventure story rather than a serious tale of propaganda and escape attempts. When the players decide to abandon the escape in favour of staying and winning the game you’ll either groan and roll your eyes or throw a fist in the air and yell “Hell Yeah,” it’s that kind of divisive movie. But it is fun and the football scenes are impressive.
And that really is it for 1981.
See you next time.