1982: ANNUS MIRABILIS FOR SCIENCE FICTION, HORROR AND FANTASY?

liquid sky

Liquid Sky

In 1982, the mood in the United Kingdom was one of brash optimism. The economy had begun to drag itself out of the early 1980s recession, with its attendant inflation, unemployment and public unrest. Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were the best of friends, and would soon be stamping down hard on trade unions and overseeing deregulation of the financial markets. Before 1982 was over, Britain would boot Argentina out of the Falklands, Princess Diana would give birth to an heir to the throne, and Henry VIII’s flagship, The Mary Rose, would be dredged up from the Solent. Rule Britannia!

National pride was bolstered at the 54th Academy Awards in Los Angeles, where Chariots of Fire won Best Picture. Its screenwriter, Colin Welland proclaimed “The British are coming!” – a sentiment that would only be reinforced the following year when Gandhi, another British production, won eight Oscars. Both films appealed to a mood of nationalistic nostalgia for the days when Britain was still perceived as Great, and spearheaded a trend for tasteful heritage cinema harking back to the Victorian and Edwardian eras.

Among the other films on offer in 1982 were An Officer and a Gentleman, Sophie’s Choice, The Year of Living Dangerously, Missing, The Verdict, Victor Victoria, The World According to Garp, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, 48 Hrs, Frances, Annie, Pink Floyd – The Wall, Koyaanisqatsi and Tootsie. Porky’s catered to slobby teens, while low budget ensemble comedy-dramas like Diner and Fast Times at Ridgemont High presented a new generation of stars-to-be including Sean Penn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Mickey Rourke, Ellen Barkin and Kevin Bacon.

blade-runner-city

Blade Runner

But the most extraordinary thing about 1982 was that it was an annus mirabilis for fantasy and science fiction cinema. The biggest hit of the year was Steven Spielberg’s E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (still the best of the Star Trek films!) and Poltergeist also made it into the box-office Top Ten, but they were just the tip of the iceberg.

My own film year began in thrilling style with the first London screening of Mad Max 2, the first time I truly understood what 70mm Panavision was all about. If you’ve never experienced the moment of opening out from the square format intro to that first chase scene in anamorphic widescreen with the engine roaring in 6-track Dolby, then I’m sorry, but you’ve never seen “the last of the V8 Interceptors” as it’s meant to be seen. This is cinema!

In 1982, I was taking my first faltering steps as a film reviewer. In practical terms, this meant I had to write about My Nights with Messalina, Naughty Blue Knickers and other releases my more established colleagues (understandably) refused to touch. But it also enabled me to sneak into press screenings of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, Paul Schrader’s reworking of Cat People and the hi-tech computer fantasy Tron.

And it was a vintage year for genre cinema. Other treats included John Milius’s Conan the Barbarian, John Carpenter’s The Thing, the portmanteau horror-comedy Creepshow, Don Coscarelli’s sword and sorcery fantasy The Beastmaster, The Plague Dogs (which would surely have traumatised any children who were taken to see it – it certainly traumatised me when I saw it as an adult), Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal (another nightmarish “family film”) and Larry Cohen’s glorious Q – The Winged Serpent, which I saw one Sunday morning at the London Film Festival, nursing a hangover that wasn’t exactly improved by the sight of New Yorkers getting their heads (and other extremities) chewed off by an Aztec god which had made its nest in the pyramid-adjacent Chrysler Building.

q the winged serpent

Q – The Winged Serpent

The year was not without its sequels – the Friday the 13th and Amityville franchises were going strong. Halloween III: Season of the Witch‘s attempt to ring some changes on the slasher formula failed, alas, so psychokiller Michael Myers was revived for the following film. Piranha II: The Spawning, might not have attracted attention beyond the small demographic of buffs who enjoyed films about flying piranhas, but its director was James Cameron, who was already hatching The Terminator.

But most notably, in place of today’s reboots and spin-offs and formulaic superheroes, there was a bumper crop of innovative low budget productions. Not all of them found their audiences immediately, and some of the smaller films took a few years to reach the U.K., but a flourishing rep circuit and the newly-minted Channel 4, with its early commitment to screening the best of world cinema, allowed us to catch up on titles we’d missed.

New-fangled VHS technology did the rest. Sooner or later we all passed round videos of The Sender, an ahead-of-its-time paranormal psychothriller by Roger Christian (Alien‘s art director, whose directing career would later be deep-sixed by Battlefield Earth) or the Roger Corman production Forbidden World, a cheapo Alien rip-off for which James Cameron designed the sets, some of which were made from spray painted Styrofoam sandwich boxes.

DVD-sender-mirror

The Sender

The films were eclectic in theme and wide-ranging in their ambition. Basket Case was a horror comedy about a killer mutant twin, made with a crew so small they had to pad out the credits with fake names. Klaus Kinski played a mad doctor in Android, in which an artificial lifeform on a remote space station yearns to be human (surely inspiration for Michael Fassbender’s character in Prometheus, but basing his impersonation of a human on James Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life rather than Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia). In Liquid Sky, Manhattan hipsters dropped dead during sex after tiny aliens become addicted to the endorphins produced during human orgasm.

In the satirical horror-comedy Eating Raoul, cult favourites Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov played a square couple who discover the joys of cannibalism along with a way to fund their dream of opening a gourmet restaurant. Samuel Fuller, godfather of the gritty issue pic, showed he’d lost none of his nose for controversy with White Dog, good old-fashioned exploitation about a German Shepherd trained to attack Afro-Americans.

It was a watershed year for European cinema as well. Ingmar Bergman gave us his last masterpiece, Fanny and Alexander. The British release of Jean-Jacques Beineix’s hyper-stylish Diva signalled the start of the Cinéma du Look, while Bob Swaim’s La Balance, shot on the mean streets of Belleville, inaugurated a new style of gritty French police procedural.

veronika voss

Veronika Voss

1982 was the last time The Big Three directors of 1970s New German Cinema would all release films in the same year: Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, Wim Wenders’ The State of Things, and Veronika Voss and Querelle from the prolific Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who would die in June 1982 at the age of 37, a brilliant burn-out, after having made 40 feature films, two TV series and 24 stage-plays in just 15 years.

The massive success of E.T. had a baleful effect on Hollywood, which would henceforth increasingly concentrate on “tentpole” blockbusters at the expense of more modest productions. But the failure to acknowledge the outpouring of brilliant genre fare also showed up the huge culture gap between critics and younger audiences. Blade Runner, now hailed as a SF game changer, was admired for its visual style, but reaction to the film as a whole was lukewarm, at best, and few mainstream reviewers had even heard of Philip K. Dick, author of the novel on which Scott’s film was based, who died that same year, a few months before its premiere. I remember being astonished by the negative reviews of The Thing, which was almost universally detested. “Achieves the particularly horrid combination of being both dull and absolutely disgusting,” and “far too gory” were typical responses.

My friends and I disagreed. We loved The Thing and concluded, not for the first time, that critics were out of touch, that they would always prefer tasteful period drama and heartwarming family fare to SF or horror films bursting with replicants on the rampage or tentacled monsters, no matter how original and inventive, or how well conceived the characters, or how expertly crafted the tension. The only science fiction they would tolerate was wholesome, sentimental and optimistic – none of your nihilistic nonsense with its wholesale destruction, rampant paranoia and downbeat endings. Downbeat was frowned on in 1982. The only way was up.

britannia hospital askwith

Britannia Hospital

Another 1982 film that received a merciless pasting in the British press was Lindsay Anderson’s Britannia Hospital – a viciously funny satire set in a strike-torn hospital on the day of the Queen Mother’s visit, and boasting one of the best ensemble casts ever assembled in a British film. (It included Leonard Rossiter, Graham Crowden, Jill Bennett, Joan Plowright, Robin Askwith, Malcolm McDowell, Mark Hamill, Dandy Nichols, Alan Bates, T. P. McKenna and Arthur Lowe, who passed away six weeks before the premiere.) More than one critic, wilfully blind to the obvious allegory, dismissed it as a lame attack on the National Health Service.

But the clue is in the title. Britannia Hospital paints a picture of a society divided, materialistic, ruled by self-serving idiots and teetering on the brink of collapse. Right or left – no-one is spared, the free press is doomed and everyone is in thrall to technology.

In 1982, this was the complete opposite of the way the nation wanted to see itself. Little wonder that everyone loathed it.

Screen Shot 2018-04-11 at 12.37.50

Britannia Hospital

This piece was first published on the Telegraph website in March 2015. It has since been edited. Only now do I see that I appear to have been generous in my definition of “1982” – Android, for example, is listed on imdb as having been released in 1983. But I’m going to let it stand. 

 

 

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2 thoughts on “1982: ANNUS MIRABILIS FOR SCIENCE FICTION, HORROR AND FANTASY?

  1. Golly, you’ve brought back a whole bunch of memories, there — especially my first watching of Blade Runner (to which I was dragged, unwilling, by a friend; I ended up loving it). Stuck in Exeter in 1982, I didn’t see or even know about most of these at the time, but (as you say) the VHS revolution soon changed all that, and many of the movies you mention — notably Veronika Voss — became important parts of the way I think about watching movies.

    • I remember being knocked out by the look of Blade Runner on first viewing, but less than impressed by its characters and plot. It was only on later viewings, when I transferred my allegiance to the replicants, that I started feeling it, since their situation is so much more interesting and tragic than that of Deckard.

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