Once Upon a Time in the 80s: Genremeld (Part 10 of 17)

This is a recapitulation of a paper I did in college. This is part eight in the series to read other parts go here.

Gremlins, Ghostbusters, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Creepshow, Weird Science, Time Bandits, Splash, Big, Back to the Future, The Witches of Eastwick and My Stepmother is an Alien all of these films crossed genres to try and make something new and unique, and this was a staple of 80s filmmaking.


It has been said that nothing really original has been said after 1800. In film much the same conundrum exists in that there really are no new stories, but that doesn’t mean we still don’t crave films. More so than any other decade prior the 80s were expert at recombining genres and on occasion creating something new or at least different enough that everyone flocked towards it.

One of the great hits of the genremeld was Gremlins. Never before or since has there been such a perfect balance of the horrific and comedic. There’s no tongue-in-cheek here it wants you to laugh and gasp in the same breath.


Gremlins (1984, Warner Bros.)

In the film Gremlins we have two important things occurring: first, this is one of the first films of the Spielberg School. It was written by Chris Columbus while he was attending NYU he later went on to work with Spielberg on The Goonies. It was directed by Joe Dante a former Corman protégé who later in the decade directed Innerspace and Matinee. Plot-wise this film is very important in that it’s a great example of the ’80s habit of fusing genres. Many ’80s many horror films were unintentionally funny this one is attempting to be purposely funny and succeeding. It was also quite frightening mostly to young kids because the cute, little furry things mutate into nasty, putrid beasts.


Structurally, this film is very tight. In the opening scene where the father (Hoyt Axton) buys a mogwai we are given rules, a trait common to many fantasy films, they are ‘don’t get them wet, don’t feed them after midnight and they hate bright light.’ The breaking of these rules end up being our act breaks and/or plot points. The first act ends in one of the most clear-cut fashions I’ve ever seen. Gizmo, the mogwai, gets water spilled on him in the 25th minute of the film and we see his progeny pop right out of him.


What a lot of people fail to notice is that there was actually a new creature invented for this film under the guise of an old myth. Gremlins were supposedly little monsters placed in machinery during World War II by the Germans. This creature comes from China according to this tale. It also allows for slight social commentary when Mr. Futterman complains about foreign cars and also while drunk he professes to believe in Gremlins in the classic sense. In the 1980s foreign cars truly bothered people enough such that the phrase ‘Buy American,’ was coined. 


Gremlins (1984, Warner Bros.)

The Spielberg School was always very big on ‘in-jokes,’ which can be readily apparent to the audience but are often missed (i.e. Rockin’ Ricky Rialto has the same billboard lettering as, and similar artwork to, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Gizmo hiding behind an E.T. doll). There is also a cameo by animation director Chuck Jones. 


The characters in this film are quickly established. We see Rand Peltzer, the father, haplessly trying to pedal his invention, Billy (Zach Galligan) signing a petition, Kate (Phoebe Cates) works at a bar for free and Mrs. Deagle (Polly Holliday) refuses to give a family more time to pay their loan. This film is funny and fun-filled and allusions to classic cinema are also play an important part in this story there is a clip from It’s a Wonderful Life and the Gremlins watch Snow White and in a hysterical turn they love it. There’s also mimicry of a popular film at the time Flashdance, and it’s great. The whole second half of this film is a wonderful mix of the hysterical and the creepy and sometimes both. Mrs. Deagle is thrown from her Stairmaster out the window to die in the snow. This shouldn’t be funny but it is. Then on the gross-out side we see a Gremlin melting in the sunlight. We also have the music of Jerry Goldsmith in this film who is wonderful composer who will turn out tunes just as hummable as Williams’s, but he specializes more in these fun types of films.

Gremlins was a big hit grossing $148 million on an $11 million dollar budget, and it’s easy to see why. It turns from a horror/comedy and there’s a lot of action thrown in. We laugh at what we shouldn’t. This is also one of the more tastefully done ‘horrors-on-Christmas’ films with a Gremlin getting chopped to bits while Burl Ives’s ‘Do You Hear What I Hear?’ is playing. I used to be deathly afraid of this film and it took me many years to gather up the courage to see it again. I’m very glad I did see it again though because, as strange as it sounds, this film is even whimsical in the way it handles its subject matter. As an adult, I don’t know who would be truly afraid of it but it does offer its fair share of the horror currency known as the “gross-out.” It’s so well handled in that regard I think we may be in suspense for a bit waiting for something else like it.

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Once Upon a Time in the 80s: The Directors (Part 8 of 17)

This is a recapitulation of a paper I did in college. This is part eight in the series to read other parts go here.

When discussing the 1980s no director stands out more prominently than does Steven Spielberg. Just looking at his repertoire of films from the decade and we can see his artistry was ever-expanding. He had blockbusters in the Indiana Jones trilogy and also with the incredibly sensitive and heart-felt E.T. He also started to venture into uncharted territory. I truly admire directors who are always looking to change to make a departure so to speak, and Spielberg was always willing to do that. Even while E.T. was a success he had Poltergeist in general release, which was a supernatural horror film. It was E.T. that did it for him. It was his biggest hit to date and it allowed him to create his own production company, Amblin Entertainment.


After his second Indy film he started work on his first drama and it’s one of his better efforts called The Color Purple. There was much critical uproar over Spielberg handling a story about African-Americans. Regardless of that it’s a great film that works beautifully and like most of his films has a triumphant theme. His next film was also a drama but here we saw World War II from a difficult angle. In Empire of the Sun Spielberg beautifully documents the travails of a lost British child. This is Spielberg’s first wartime opus and the war is less involved in the events of this film than in other films and it works fantastically. The film received much critical praise including in the international media, which called this his most European film. After the third and final Indy film, for the time being, he did a remake called Always. Spielberg would continue to change from film to film doing whatever he wanted. He then went on to the much maligned but absolutely magical Hook in ’91. Then came Jurassic Park, which was in all likelihood what helped him start up DreamWorks.


Steven Spielberg was the ideal director for the 1980s. Most of the films I’ve talked about were Amblin Productions. Spielberg was producer of Young Sherlock Holmes, The Money Pit, An American Tail, Harry and the Hendersons, Innerspace, *batteries not included and Back to the Future Part II amongst others. All of these films are adventurous, family-oriented and fantastical in some way or another. Steven Spielberg’s worked has only improved and multiplied in the 90s. He was also the standard setter in the 80s whereas everyone was trying to emulate his style but none really could.

Beetlejuice (1988, Warner Bros.)

Lucas’ impact has already been noted with the Star Wars films and co-authoring the Indiana Jones series but stylistically few directors were more noticeable than Tim Burton. His first break into the big time was directing Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, a quirky film about a child-like adult’s search for his lost bike. The film surprised everyone and spawned a Saturday morning program. Burton’s flair for the quirky and unusual and his visual sensitivity got even more free-range in his next project, Beetlejuice. Not only is this one of the most original films I’ve seen but the cinematography, particularly in the after-world sequences with the sandworms, is fantastic. In Beetlejuice we follow the tale of a couple that has recently died and they try to scare the new residents of their house out. Michael Keaton delivers one of his best performances as the gross and irreverent title character and this film too was spun-off into a cartoon.

Wall Street (1987, Columbia/Tri Star)

Oliver Stone is one of the best directors out there right now [as of this writing]. He’s very different from most directors at any point in time because he’s more willing to be political than most American directors. The film that put him on the map was Salvador, which deals with Panama at a time when Reagan looked upon all of South and Central America as his toys. He then had his two anti-Vietnam films being Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July, which are powerful and stirring accounts. I do believe that every good director has a bit of good fortune in their timing every once in a while. Spielberg released Minority Report when privacy and surveillance are big issues, and Oliver Stone came out with Wall Street a year after Ivan Boesky and Dennis Levine plead guilty of insider trading and just a few months after the stock market crash of 1987. Daryl Hannah’s pathetic performance aside, this one of his best films and it’s the most emblematic of the 80s, in a negative Oliver Stone-like way. Money leads to these characters downfall and it practically tears a family apart. We get Michael Douglas playing one of his most memorable characters, Gordon Gekko, delivering that fabulous speech, which Stone seems to know how to write, starting off “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.” Gordon Gekko is the 80s captain of industry. Combine him and Sigourney Weaver in Working Girl and you have the ultimate cold-hearted capitalist.


The 1980s was more a decade of individual films than of directors. There weren’t a bunch of auteurs walking around but there were plenty of movies coming from all over the place. There were but a handful of powerful filmmakers, these were the foremost.

Work Cited and Footnotes: Otavio Frias Filho “Spielberg” pp. 214-220. Folha Conta 100 Anos de Cinema. Ed. Amir Labaki. Imago Editora: Rio de Janeiro, 1995.

-“Pee-Wee’s Playhouse” had probably the best set design I’ve seen on television.

-Despite the quality of the film, Beetlejuice, the cartoon series is one of the worst piece of junk I ever saw all the jokes were in pun form, who wrote that?

Best of Spielberg

Here’s a second installment of a list idea I’m borrowing from Brian Saur. Here I will discuss the films of Steven Spielberg. Spielberg is probably my favorite director of all time. I did an Ingmar Bergman list first, in part to track what I still needed to see. With Spielberg my impetus was to finally be up to date on his narrative features, which sadly I wasn’t.

As with any list, rankings may make thing seem worse than they are. There are 30 films on this list. Make no mistake I like 28 of them and am a snarky fanboy on one, and three have at one point been my all-time favorite, including my current number one (if pressed to answer). Here goes…

30. The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)

Jurassic Park 2: The Lost World (1997, Universal)

This is the sequel Spielberg supposedly gave Universal so they’d leave E.T. alone. That’s almost enough to bump it past last place but I can’t. Even though I loved the score and effects it was still one of the worst, most confounding thing I saw that year. The third film and news of a fourth have softened that hurt, but seeing newly-introduced annoying character and the follow-up to my then favorite film of all-time relegated to a Godzilla/King Kong knock-off hurt.

29. 1941 (1979)

1941 (1979, Universal/Columbia)

I did try to like this. My professor tried to get me to like it. I just don’t. Spielberg doesn’t care much for it either and has moved on to bigger and better things.

28. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008, Paramount)

Nuking the fridge only happened in one scene people, Shia LaBeouf had many more scenes than that and Cate Blanchett seemed uncomfortable. Spielberg has since honestly confessed what his reservations were about this film. Hopefully that molds a better fifth film should it occur, though he certainly doesn’t need there to be one.

27. Amistad (1997)

Amistad (1997, Universal)

As oddly engaging as Spielberg’s restraint in Lincoln is, if memory serves, there was an attempt at such here too that doesn’t work quite as well. I remember Honsou and Hopkins impressed but not much else.

26. The Terminal (2004)

The Terminal (2004, DreamWorks)

Unlike Catch Me If You Can, which appears shortly, I wasn’t even compelled to go out and see this one theatrically. It’s an interesting and well-handled idea that I can indentify with on a few levels but it’s just not one of his best.

25. Twilight Zone: The Movie (segment 2) (1983)

The Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983, Paramount)

I saw this recently also and Spielberg’s segment fits him to a tee (residents of a retirement home become young again) and is the second best in the anthology in my estimation behind Joe Dante’s zany one.

24. Poltergeist (1982)

Poltergeist (1982, Paramount)

One can debate the nuances and politics of whether Spielberg really directed this. To be brief: I have it on good authority that he directed most of it and just didn’t take the credit because he couldn’t per DGA rules at the time. This is a title where I could rant and rave childishly about how “My opinion is different than yours!” but I won’t. Poltergeist is fine, it just never had a tremendous amount of impact on me.

23. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984, Paramount)

To address the white elephant in the room: I do not have any issue with the character of Shortround whatsoever. Temple of Doom lands here more for being the third best in the series and Kate Capshaw than anything else.

22. Catch Me if You Can (2002)

Catch Me If You Can (2002, DreamWorks)

This is one of those that falls into the category of “There’s nothing really wrong with it, I just can’t get into it.”

21. The Sugarland Express (1974)

The Sugarland Express (1974, Universe)

This is an unusual but involving one with a great turn by a young Goldie Hawn.

20. Always (1989)

Always (1989, Universal)

This one film I finally saw last year so as I could finally create this list. I had avoided it because in clips and trailers you could not get a sense of the totality of the film. It is Spielberg’s first remake, but it’s a fairly well modernized one that features Audrey Hepburn‘s final performance.

19. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977, Columbia)

Spielberg has said that the end of this film dates him as a filmmaker. I understand his point entirely but he does set it up very well. Also, in a bit of fanboy wish-fulfillment, I’d suggest the end of this film and the end of E.T. swap, but it is a very visual and evocative film with the added bonus of an acting-only participation by François Truffaut.

18. Hook (1991)

Hook (1991, Columbia)

The mark of a great director is making something that seems illogical, that shouldn’t be able to work, work. This is his best example ih that regard.

17. Minority Report (2002)

Minority Report (2002, DreamWorks)

If Robopocalypse, or something like it, ever comes to fruition it would complete a Dark Future Trilogy for Spielberg, which may seem antithetical to his ethos but something he said he’s not averse to when discussing A.I.

16. Munich (2005)

Munich (2005, DreamWorks)

I welcome departures from directors. Spielberg is perhaps more underrated in terms of his diversity than any other director. His hits and classics have commonalities to them such that it makes people think he repeats himself constantly. These two selections shake that notion massively. Munich is a dark film, where there can be no happy endings. It’s a chillingly rendered tale of an ugly incident in history that cannot be buried.

15. Lincoln (2012)

Lincoln (2012, DreamWorks)

Lincoln almost isn’t a Spielberg film, it plays with such classical restraint and removal that it’s almost anti-auteurish, but it’s still very engaging and convincing.

14. War of the Worlds (2005)

War of the Worlds (2005, Paramount)

I think this film might get overlooked in part because it stuck close to the source material, but also because it’s the kind of film Spielberg “should” take on. However, when you consider how often he’s made aliens benevolent a surviving an alien apocalypse tale is a little different for him. That and it’s another rather imperfect family.

13. Jaws (1975)

Jaws (1975, Universal)

Here’s where rankings can get you in trouble. Jaws is great. I have nothing I can say against it, except the intangible “I like other works in Spielberg’s canon a lot better.” I have and can see Jaws many times over. It’s just a matter of preference when you start slotting them.

12. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981, Paramount)

Yes, the Indiana Jones and the was later tacked on. Spielberg and Lucas have combined perfectly three times in this series. They take a serialized approach to a feature and update classic tropes very well and memorably.

11. The Adventures of Tintin (2011)

The Adventures of Tintin (2011, Columbia/Paramount)

When Spielberg is at his best he combines technological innovation with great stories. Although I fell under the spell of seeing motion capture for the first time in The Polar Express, it was imperfectly ahead of his time and didn’t make a jump toward verisimilitude until this film. It’s a very viable tool other animation properties should and could use. Not only that it’s a great take and a global re-introduction of a beloved character. Not many directors go from live action to animation or vice versa, this is a seamless jump.

10. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989, Paramount)

I am a fan of the Indiana Jones series, albeit a Johnny Comelately to it, and this is my favorite one. More explanation can be found in the link above.

9. Duel (1971)

Duel (1971, Universal TV)

If there was ever a made-for-TV movie that prove that it’s a meaningless distinction, it’s this one. I have to remind myself it is one. Only once in a hundred times when I think about this movie do I recall that. It’s taut, brilliantly suspenseful and relatably frightening.

8. War Horse (2011)

War Horse (2011, DreamWorks)

War Horse is one I need to revisit, but this one vaults up the list due to improbability. Spielberg is one of the directors I go out and see regardless, however, I didn’t expect much here. I was anxious for Tintin, but this one shook up my whole best of the year list. Very surprisingly emotional and engaging.

7. The Color Purple (1985)

The Color Purple (1985, Warner Bros.)

One of the most embarrassing moments in Oscar history is perhaps the fact that this film is the biggest oh-fer, garnering eleven nominations and no wins. Spielberg created some controversy by even taking this film on. I think the end result proved he could do it and paved the way for his more mature dramatic works later on.

6. Empire of the Sun (1987)

Empire of the Sun (Warner Bros.)

I saw this in 2002 just after having taken my Spielberg course. I hadn’t really heard of it ’til then. It was referenced as Spielberg’s “most European film” by my professor and one that I began anticipating in A.I.-like fashion, which should’ve set me up for disappointment, but didn’t. It’s dense and takes some wading but when you get there it’s special. Not to mention there’s a brilliant performance by a young Christian Bale.

5. Schindler’s List (1993)

Schindler's List (1993, Universal)

The next two films are ones that I really admire, have great affection for, but am leery to revisit because they are taxing experiences. However, they’re important and I hope their legacy continues through oncoming generations. A while ago, I recall I saw a kid picking up Schindler’s List at a video store and it was heartwarming, as I saw a burgeoning cineaste.

4. Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Saving Private Ryan (1998, DreamWorks)

It took me a while to see this one. The tale of saving the last surviving brother is the MacGuffin, a very Spielbergian one. However, the reaction I had to this film, though very different than many of his works, was one of the strongest I had. It was a new aesthetic for him and in many ways a revolutionary work.

3. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

Nearly any child of the 80s grew up on Spielberg films. I will be doing a focus on Disney, which I surmise that unless you saw re-releases and VHS tapes you weren’t getting the golden age of that studio. However, if you grew up in the 80s, regardless of who you were, odds are every few years Spielberg changed your life. E.T. is an imaginary friend come true, it’s not necessarily always an alien, but many of us were Elliot, which is what makes it resonate.

2. Jurassic Park (1993)

Jurassic Park (1993, Universal)

Suffice it to say that upon its release, when I was still quite young, this was probably the most amazing theatrical experience I’d ever encountered. I’ve found myriad great films since then but this one has not lost its luster in the slightest. When I first saw it, this was the greatest film of my lifetime. It was the dream of every dinorsaur-loving child brought to life for better and for worse.

1. Artificial Intelligence: A.I. (2001)

Artificial Intelligence: A.I. (2001, DreamWorks)

I’ve already written a tome about this film, which I have posted on this site in installments. Making a new or different case for it would be nearly pointless.

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.