Once Upon a Time in the 80s- Special Effects (Part 3 of 17)

Note: This is a recapitulation of a paper I wrote in film school. It will be published here in installments. This is part three you can read part one here and part two here.

The 1980s were marked by the emergence of the computer into mainstream American culture. The increasing accessibility and availability of this tool made its impact on the entertainment industry in a very powerful way. In 1984 one of the most famous commercials of the year was Apple Computer’s ‘Big Brother’ a play on Orwell’s 1984. While unlike the 90s where computers would soon come to reside in well over half of America’s households, and the science fiction aspect and the improbability of the device was demolished; they were becoming a much more practical tool.

The key in revolutionizing computerized effect lay with one man. In 1977 George Lucas formed Industrial Light and Magic to create the effects for Star Wars. Working out of Marina County California his company soon started to work on effects for many films. Their first heavy volume of releases was in 1985 with Back to the Future, Cocoon, Explorers, The Goonies and Young Sherlock Holmes which with ‘The Stained Glass Man’ had the first fully computer generated character. The rest was history in 1986 comes Aliens which took the computer generated character to the next level and it’s been an ongoing game of “Can You Top This?” ever since.

The fact that the special effects craze came about in the late 70s and grew exponentially in the 80s is like kismet. This was a decade that was jam-packed with action films but also had an abundance of fantasy films still around. This new technology opened up possibilities for narrative never before seen and they were used, for example, a journey inside a human body in Innerspace. The kind of film that was in demand with the American public was also the kind of film that was well-suited to the new special effects technology.

Before the apathetic generation-x-ridden 90s when films of social dementia disguised as poetry like American Beauty would run amuck, the 80s was a decade riddled with myth and fantasy, here’s a sample: The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, The Neverending Story, Legend, Dark Crystal, Back to the Future, Flight of the Navigator and so on. Escapism being a large part of the cinematic formula coupled with the youthful audience allowed for these advances and this type of storytelling which is only recently beginning to creep back into being.

The shift away from fantastical storytelling that occurred in the mid-90s and lasted until about 1999 in a way has impeded the progress of CGI. While in some films it blends in perfectly and is breathtaking in others it sticks out like a sore thumb. Sure, there are films and studios that will be cheap, but had there been more constant works the floor of marginally acceptable CGI would’ve risen. The man who is always breaking the glass ceiling of CGI excellence is George Lucas, and he says he tries to push other directors with every film he does, hopefully people will follow suit.

The computer generated image is one of the few things from the 80s which was expanded upon in the 90s. The technology has some very practical uses such as digital stunts and extras. With this technology the director’s vision can more easily be realized where as if something doesn’t exist the way he sees it can be created. This is one of the 80s lasting legacies. When we’re looking back upon this decade we, of course, can’t forget some of the films that came out of the decade, but we must also remember that filmmaking was forever changed in this decade because ‘Special Effects’ became a term that we could apply to almost every film. A new cinematic tool was beginning to be fully realized and is still being perfected to this very day.

 Footnote and Work Cited:

1. The Empire Strikes Back won an Academy Award for Special Achievement in Special Effects. The following year it was a category at the awards, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Drangonslayer were nominated.

2. Star Wars: Episode II- Attack of the Clones Dir. George Lucas. Feat. Hayden Christiansen, Ewan Macgregor, Natalie Portman, Christopher Lee. 2002, 20th Century Fox. DVD extra features.

61 Days of Halloween- Halloween II (1981)

Most holidays worth their while encompass entire seasons, such as Christmas, for example. However, as you may have noticed there is a corporate push every year for us to think about the next holiday even sooner. While this has many negative side effects I figure I may as well embrace it.

Since Labor Day is really only good for college football and movie marathons cinematically it is as significant as Arbor Day, which means the next big day on the calendar is Halloween and we can start looking toward it starting now.

Daily I will be viewing films in the horror genre between now and then and sharing the wealth. Many, as is usually the case, will not be worth it so for every disappointment so I will try and suggest something worth while as well.

Halloween II (1981)

Halloween II (Univeral Pictures)

What is interesting to note about the second Halloween film is that much like the Friday the 13th series it rewinds and replays the end of the previous film. This film does so to great affect because it doesn’t go back too far or splice it up it only backtracks the necessary amount to be able to continue the story in exact chronological order. So in the world of this film it is still October 31, 1978 and the film does a tremendous job in creating a very believable continuity in all aspects.

Much like the first film, and many horror films, there is an homage on a TV and you see clips from Night of the Living Dead.

Part of what makes this film interesting is that it starts with the media not yet having released that it is Michael Myers. So his legend is not yet re-popularized, which does mean you need to make a leap of faith when you see that someone is walking about dressed like him. The first seems to indicate the jumpsuit is acquired from a trucker. This potential hole aside the scene is still tremendously effective because later you do see the medical examination of the charred corpse and also because it ends up being Bennett Tramer, Lori’s crush who is merely mentioned in the first film.

This is also the first real taste you get of the vilification of Dr. Loomis. The police show a lot of, if not infallible, patience in the first film. Here Myers affects them personally and they lash out at Loomis.

The flow of news that’s being disseminated is very well handled from news stand ups to snippets overheard from a boom box. It reflects the widening of Myers’s scope. While this widening is well handled it’s part of what makes this film not quite the first. While it is very chilling throughout there was a certain sense of claustrophobia that was created by focusing on two babysitting assignments on either side of a street in the first film that is better and absent here.

The cinematography in this film is perhaps even better than the first. An advantage of the changed scope is that Dean Cundey is given a wider variety of canvases upon which to paint.

What propels the series in this edition is the twist it provides. It provides Michael both in the original and in this installment with motivation that goes beyond just simple revenge. It is also different as it provides a twist to the nature or identity of the victim as opposed to the villain.

There is more, however, which makes this a truly special film not only in horror but in the realm of sequels. This film also has an iconic moment, more a concept really, and that is finding the word “samhain” written in blood on an elementary school chalkboard.

What is perhaps best about the character of Lori Strode is that she always seems to very genuinely connect with the audience, which is not merely a function of her being played by Jamie Lee Curtis. It is also due in part to the fact that she very often reflects the audience’s thoughts: “He is the Boogeyman,” or in this film “Why won’t he die?” and because it’s Jamie Lee Curtis it sounds like a genuine question and not a punchline from an Austin Powers film.

Lori is also able to distract Michael long enough to get him offguard by showing she knows who he is. In what could’ve been a move that took it over the top Michael is shot in the head and blood runs out of his mask’s eye holes and represent the tears he cannot shed. It does work, however, because his action belies that seeming representation of emotion. However, he was stopped when he saw he was recognized.

This film also makes Loomis, despite all the failings he’s had whether they were his fault or not, its hero as he manages to stop Michael (or so it seems) even in the final confrontation there is a great image and moment to be had.

While it doesn’t quite live up to its predecessor it does do right by the story, concept and its characters.