By Dan Santelli, Jr., BMFI Programming Intern
Beginning this Friday, the summer season of BMFI’s The Late Show series will kick off with an 11:30 pm screening of Jim Henson and Frank Oz’s dark fantasy, The Dark Crystal. The Late Show’s theme this summer is “'80s Hollywood Oddities”, a selection of some of the more offbeat outings from the American studios amidst a decade of excess, including films by American independent maverick John Carpenter, puppet wizards Jim Henson and Frank Oz, television-director-turned-studio-director Robert Greenwald, and Monty Python’s very own expatriate, Terry Gilliam. In each of their films, these directors were able bypass the studio’s ideology to produce films for mass consumption and create strange, perverse, and personal expressions that have stood the test of time. Even if the films’ box-office performance was mediocre at best—The Dark Crystal and They Live were the only two genuine hits—their idiosyncratic styles have garnered cult followings.
The 1982 feature The Dark Crystal follows the adventures of a “Gelfling” on a quest to retrieve the missing piece of a magical crystal. Finding the shard and completing the crystal is the only possible method of restoring order on his planet. What lies beneath the veneer of this "family-friendly," Tolkien-inspired fable is a bizarre, mythical tale featuring some of the strangest creatures ever to emerge from the Jim Henson Workshop and several set-pieces exhibiting an array of grotesque visuals—it’s not every day you see a vulture-like King crumble and fall apart postmortem in a movie purported to be aimed at children.
On July 6, BMFI will screen the director’s cut of Terry Gilliam’s 1985 dystopian, black-comedy Brazil. Running at 142 minutes, the director’s cut restores approximately ten minutes of footage (most of which expands the film’s nightmarish ending) and reconceives the film’s central dream sequence—in which our hero, bureaucrat Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), battles a giant, metallic samurai—as a full set-piece. The film’s many aesthetic pleasures and visionary depiction of a retro-future gone horribly wrong are enough to warrant a big-screen experience, regardless of whether you’ve seen the movie or not. Furthermore, Brazil’s critique of humanity’s dependence on technology and reworking of Orwellian themes has influenced a number of science-fiction films.
Two John Carpenter films, 1986’s Big Trouble in Little China (showing on July 28) and 1988’s They Live (showing on August 24), will be screened as well. In Big Trouble, all-American trucker Jack Burton (Carpenter favorite Kurt Russell) finds himself in the middle of a mystical battle between ancient forces while helping to rescue a damsel-in-distress. All of which leads up to a climactic battle with the evil sorcerer Lo Pan (James Hong). While there may be little in the way of a sociological critique, director Carpenter’s sheer audacity to combine the spirit of Howard Hawks with martial arts, humor, and full-blooded action is nothing short of revelatory and an escape from mindless by-the-numbers formulas. A $25 million studio blockbuster, Big Trouble’s poor performance at the box office—due in part to poor marketing and being released amidst the hype of James Cameron’s Aliens—led Carpenter to return to his roots as an independent genre filmmaker.
Carpenter’s subversive cult classic They Live is a post-modern reimagining of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, as well as a blistering critique of Reganomics and the excessive nature of the era. WWE’s Rowdy Roddy Piper stars as a wandering construction worker who, through the power of his magic sunglasses, discovers a group of aliens in disguise as the upper-class. Filled with cheesy fun, hilarious lines, and politically astute sensibilities, They Live is a hoot.
Speaking of cheesy, Robert Greenwald’s kitschy cult classic Xanadu, starring Grease’s Olivia Newton-John, will screen on August 7. Greenwald’s musical concerns Greek goddess Kira (Newton-John) and her influence on two men to transform an auditorium into a giant roller rink/nightclub. A flop upon its initial release, Xanadu, like all of the former titles, achieved legendary cult status due to repeat playing on late night television and a ‘90s VHS release. Featuring legendary star Gene Kelly in his final film role, enjoy the fun romp that is Xanadu.
These pictures, for better or worse, are representative of a time when the Hollywood studios dared to produce or distribute a product that today would be considered “unmarketable”. It has been twenty-two years since the end of the ‘80s, but the decade lives on in each of these films, subversive time capsules that reflect the changes in ideological beliefs, bygone trends, or the once lenient limitations of what constituted a children’s movie.
Dan Santelli, BMFI's Programming Intern, is a 2012 graduate of Temple University with a Bachelor's degree in Film and Media Arts. A lifelong cineaste, his favorite films (in no particular order) include Leon: The Professional, The Night of the Hunter, Touch of Evil, Blue Velvet, Brazil, Apocalypse Now, Dressed To Kill (1980), Halloween, and Les Yeux Sans Visage.