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Jeff Johnson Tag

As director Simon West’s remake of The Mechanic starring Jason Statham hits theaters this Friday, it occurred to me that, for whatever reason, I had never seen the 1972 Charles Bronson original. It’s just one if those films I meant to catch but never did, which is odd considering how much I enjoy thrillers from this particular era. I’m thinking of the gritty, realistic, and occasionally nihilistic style of filmmaking that reigned in Hollywood with such films as Dirty Harry (1971), Deliverance (1972) and Marathon Man (1976). These are the kinds of films I suspect if made today would end up making a run on the art house circuit in limited release (like the excellent Harry Brown starring Michael Caine for example), if not turned into an over-the-top action flick as the remake of The Mechanic seems to be from the trailer.

25 years ago, on December 18, Terry Gilliam’s Brazil was released in the U.S. — thus ending one of the most famous battles in Hollywood history of a director taking on a movie studio and winning.

Brazil is set “somewhere in the 20th century” in some kind of Orwellian world where not only is Big Brother watching, but requires the proper paperwork to do so. The government is so inept, it’s comical — yet at the same time the system is quite capable of doing really terrible things.

Our “hero” of the story is Sam Lowry, a meek government employee played beautifully by the great Jonathan Pryce. I remember being amazed at the time by how Pryce could go from playing the menacing Mr. Dark in Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983) to playing such a hapless soul in Brazil.

Sam Lowry works for the Ministry of Information and wakes up each morning to a fully-automated breakfast-making machine that, like most everything in this society, never quite works properly. The machine pours coffee all over his toast which leads to a funny bit of physical comedy where he attempts to eat the soggy piece of toast but it keeps flopping about in his hand. His ineffectual boss (Ian Holm), afraid of getting his own hands dirty, is delighted when Sam volunteers to hand-deliver a refund check to Mrs. Buttle, a woman whose husband was falsely arrested and tortured to death by the government — it seems the Buttles were overcharged for “information retrieval procedures.”

On December 4th, Young Sherlock Holmes turns 25. Unlike its other ’85 Amblin alumni The Goonies and Back to the Future, there probably won’t be much hype over this particular anniversary; there unfortunately won’t be any special edition Blu-ray reissues or photo shoots for Entertainment Weekly.

As I’ve previously rambled about in this column, Young Sherlock Holmes was a milestone in one important aspect of modern cinema, being the first film to combine CGI with live-action footage in a photorealistic manner. In the sequence, a clergyman experiences a hallucination in which the image of a knight in a stained-glass window comes to life. The figure leaps to the floor, raises its sword, and then impressively moves past the camera in one continuous shot.

Young Sherlock Holmes was written by Chris Columbus, who at the time was only known for first writing Gremlins in 1984 (also an Amblin production) and also for writing the screenplay for The Goonies. Columbus of course would go on to direct Home Alone (1990) and the first two Harry Potter movies (Sorcerer’s Stone in 2001 and Chamber of Secrets in 2002) where he significantly helped to establish the look of the series.

A couple of weeks ago when Unstoppable hit theaters, Popdose’s illustrious editor-in-chief Jeff Giles put together a cool list of train films over at Rotten Tomatoes. This got me thinking about one of my own favorite train movies, The Great Train Robbery (1979, known outside of the U.S. as The First Great Train Robbery).

The multi-talented Michael Crichton not only wrote the screenplay based on his own 1975 novel, but he also served as the film’s director. Did I mention he also was a graduate of Harvard Medical School? Oh, and in addition to all of those things, later he would produce a short-lived TV series called ER (1994 – 2009).

I’m a bit of a sucker for this genre and will pretty much watch anything involving aliens vs. humans, even the bad ones. Whether it’s a slow infiltration, a pod possession, or a straight-up fight, aliens have been portrayed as a human-harvesting menace for over 50 years. Here are some of my favorites.

V (1983). “Humankind’s last stand.” I generally don’t consider putting TV miniseries on my movie lists, but this one seemed important enough to include. Airing over two nights, V told the story of first contact that at first seems mutually beneficial, until the true intention of the “Visitors” is slowly uncovered while many humans remain caught up in their propaganda. Looking back at it now, it admittedly doesn’t always hold up — there’s certainly some cheesy elements at play and it clearly feels like an ’80s TV show. But its overall message, an allegory for the rise of fascism, still holds up strong.

Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956). “Warning! Take cover!” This gem from the ’50s is a straight-up invasion picture that delivers pretty much what the title suggests. The result is great fun, featuring glorious destruction of actual monuments and cool spinning saucer effects by the great Ray Harryhausen.

This Friday sees the release of what is reportedly the final movie in the Saw series, Saw 3D. There’s been so many of them — one every Halloween since the first movie came out in 2004 — that I’ve lost track of how many sequels there have been. A quick look on IMDB confirms there have been seven movies total, including the first and the new one in theaters this weekend.

The thing about the Saw series, and the point of me writing this, is that when people discuss the films, they often get lumped into a recent category of horror films that detractors have labeled “torture porn,” which, according to them, has very little merit other than depicting people dying under particularly gruesome circumstances. I can understand how the torture porn argument can by applied with regard to the sequels. Unfortunately the first Saw film is often not distinguished from the rest of the pack, so the memory of what was once recognized as an intelligent, well-acted, low-budget, psychological thriller has now been tarnished due to the over-saturation of mediocre sequels.

“The film which you are about to see is an account of the tragedy which befell a group of five youths, in particular Sally Hardesty and her invalid brother, Franklin. It is all the more tragic in that they were young. But, had they lived very, very long lives, they could not have expected nor would they have wished to see as much of the mad and macabre as they were to see that day. For them an idyllic summer afternoon drive became a nightmare. The events of that day were to lead to the discovery of one of the most bizarre crimes in the annals of American history, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.”

With this opening narration, voiced in a matter-of-fact manner by John Larroquette, the tone is set for one of the most notorious independent horror films of the ’70s. At the time, and even to this day, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) has a reputation of being a splatter-fest of over-the-top gore — and it turns out that’s really not the case. Instead the film’s violence is mostly suggestive, much of it left to one’s imagination, achieved through skillful filmmaking, sound design and editing.

The film’s director Tobe Hooper was a college professor at the University of Texas at Austin and also working as a documentary cameraman when he assembled an unknown cast of mostly teachers and students to shoot the screenplay he had co-written with Kim Henkel. As for the film’s budget, I’ve seen figures anywhere between $60,000 and $140,000. However it’s reported, the film was extremely low-budget, but this is in no way a hindrance — the 16mm look gives the film a documentary feel, which combined with the film’s false claim of being based on a true story, only adds to the overall effect.

With Red about to hit theaters this weekend, I thought I’d take a look at a few other notable older movie characters who happen to be badasses. I decided to limit this list to humans only, so sorry there’s no Yoda here. But there is a Jedi.

Harry Doyle and Archie Long from Tough Guys (1986, Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas). “Well, what do you want to do now, Archie? Steal another empty armored truck? Maybe start a collection?” The ’80s version of Red was this pairing of Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster as two old criminals released from prison for hijacking a train and now have to adjust to modern day lifestyle after being locked up for 30 years. Meanwhile Eli Wallach plays a hit man with an old contract out on them, but he is damn near blind and can barely see his quarry.

Badassitude Level: They hijack the same train they got arrested for and continue driving it even when they run out of tracks.

With Let Me In being released this week, I started thinking about its Swedish inspiration and then about other films that have taken this familiar horror staple and given it a unique spin.

The first film that comes to mind is Martin (1977). Director George A. Romero’s deconstruction of the vampire myth stars John Amplas as Martin — more of a serial killer than supernatural being — who drugs his victims before slicing them open with razor blades so he can drink their blood. Martin’s superstitious uncle believes him to be a true vampire and attempts to repel him with garlic and crucifixes, none of which of course have any effect. The vampire mythology is represented here by Martin’s recurring visions of more traditional vampiric exploits along with visions of being hunted down by torch-carrying mobs. In the end, it’s a fascinating examination of the duality of a man who thinks he’s a vampire but apparently doesn’t entirely believe the lore — yet at the same time claims to be 84 years old. Whether or not Martin is in fact an undead creature is brilliantly left ambiguous.

With a movie literally called Devil coming out this weekend, I decided to take a look at some memorable films in which Satan has taken shape in one way or another. People weary of spoilers should proceed with caution, as at least one film on this list intended that devilish revelation as a twist ending.

The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941). When the Devil, who goes by Mr. Scratch (Walter Huston), comes to collect a soul of a New Hampshire farmer who made a deal with him, orator Daniel Webster (Edward Arnold) agrees to defend the farmer in a court case — with Webster’s own soul now at stake. Scratch’s “jury of the damned” (as described by Webster) consists of (as described by Scratch) “Dastards, liars, traitors, knaves … Americans all.” Adapted from Stephen Vincent Benét’s short story, the film was originally released under the title All That Money Can Buy. Bernard Herrmann won his only Oscar for his score to this film, beating out his own score for Citizen Kane that year.

Crossroads (1986). Walter Hill directed this tale, inspired by the “true story” of blues legend Robert Johnson who, according to myth, made a deal with the Devil in exchange for his musical abilities. The final guitar duel between Eugene (Ralph Macchio) and “Scratch’s” guitar player (Steve Vai) is pretty epic as guitar battles for the soul go.

With Machete hitting theaters this week, I got to thinking about some previous cinematic tales of revenge. To set the tone, here is the original Machete trailer that was attached to the beginning of Grindhouse (2007).

The operative words are along these lines: “Set-up, double-crossed, and left for dead … they just fucked with the wrong Mexican.” Got it? Okay, let’s roll.

With Piranha 3D in theaters now, I thought it might be fun to revisit an old favorite from 1978. Movies like Piranha happened in the good old days of drive-in theaters, when a producer like Roger Corman knew that his low-budget exploitation flicks would always find an audience.

The thing is, the talent pool he drew from back then is a very impressive list nowadays, including Ron Howard (1977’s Grand Theft Auto), Jonathan Demme (1974’s women-in-prison opus Caged Heat), Martin Scorsese (1972’s Boxcar Bertha), Francis Ford Coppola (1963’s Dementia 13), and Joe Dante, the director of Piranha. With Allan Arkush, Dante had previously codirected Hollywood Boulevard (1976) for Corman, but Piranha was his first solo directorial effort.

I must admit a particular affinity for Dante’s films, most likely due to the fact that our brains were both warped at a very young age by watching far too many Warner Bros. cartoons. I saw Gremlins (1984) no less than six times in the theater during its run, and the underrated Explorers (1985) made my Revival House list of six poorly reviewed movies that I love. Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990) is sharp, self-reflexive satire with a particularly funny “technical difficulties” moment, and Martin Short poking a half-sized Kevin McCarthy in the eyes cracks me up beyond reason in Innerspace (1987).

First-time screenwriter John Sayles smartly turned Piranha from a standard “animals attack” picture into a “military weapons experiment gone awry” picture by having the U.S. government spawn the mutant fish. Sayles became a frequent Corman collaborator before embarking on a very successful career as an independent filmmaker, writing and directing The Brother From Another Planet (1984), Eight Men Out (1988), and The Secret of Roan Inish (1994), among others. If you’d like to hear a great DVD commentary track, check out Battle Beyond the Stars (1980), with Sayles and Corman, two old friends, just shooting the shit.

Two men, forced to work together, learning to respect each other along the way. Sometimes one is a loose cannon, sometimes they’re from different cultures, sometimes from opposite sides of the law — just about every variation of the cliché has been played out. And sometimes, despite the familiarity of it all, the results are still fun. Here are some of my favorites, starting with number 11.

Red Heat (1988). “Moscow’s toughest detective. Chicago’s craziest cop. There’s only one thing more dangerous than making them mad: making them partners.” The tagline pretty much says it all. Walter Hill directs this story of a Russian cop (Arnold Schwarzenegger) forced to team with an American detective (James Belushi) to catch a Soviet drug dealer who flees to the U.S. Riddled with clichés of the genre, but nevertheless a fun ride.

Shoot to Kill (1988). “A ruthless killer. A beautiful hostage. Two men follow them into the mountains. One for love. One for revenge.” FBI agent Stantin (Sidney Poitier) is forced to team up with mountain-man Knox (Tom Berenger) to capture a ruthless diamond thief (Clancy Brown) who has escaped into the woods, blending in with a group of fishermen on a hike lead by Knox’s girlfriend (Kirstie Alley). The pursuit eventually leads to the streets of Vancouver in this fun riff on Aesop’s country mouse, city mouse fable.

I’m a little late jumping on the 50th anniversary of the release of Psycho (which opened June 16th 1960), but I had the opportunity recently to attend a special event with the San Francisco Symphony — a screening of the film while the symphony performed Bernard Herrmann’s iconic score live. Knowing what I’ve read about the reportedly temperamental Herrmann, I’m sure he would have hated to hear his music in the concert hall accompanied by the sounds of the movie. As a film music geek, I would have preferred a performance of the complete Psycho score by itself, but I still knew I was experiencing something quite special. I have to admit a couple of times that I got caught up in the film and suddenly became aware that music was playing, which is saying a lot for someone like me.

There is very little doubt that director Alfred Hitchcock and composer Bernard Herrmann were masters of their craft and one of the great cinematic collaborations in the history of film. Their first film together was the black comedy The Trouble with Harry (1955), about a corpse that keeps showing up at rather inconvenient times, the theme for which can be heard now in a Volkswagen commercial (something else I’m sure Herrmann would’ve hated). Their second collaboration was The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), a remake of Hitchcock’s own 1934 version, featuring Herrmann in a cameo conducting Arthur Benjamin’s Storm Clouds cantata during the film’s suspenseful climax at the Royal Albert Hall.

This was immediately followed the same year by The Wrong Man and then in 1958 with what many consider to be their strongest collaboration, Vertigo. My personal favorite though would be their next film North By Northwest (1959), with its fandango-inspired main theme.

Following Psycho, Herrmann received a “sound consultant” credit for the electronic bird sounds in The Birds (1963) — the film itself has no background score. Marnie was their next project the following year and would be the last Alfred Hitchcock film released with a score by Bernard Herrmann.

You might not know it, but the upcoming Steve Carell / Paul Rudd vehicle Dinner for Schmucks is actually a remake of the 1998 French film The Dinner Game. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing — Hollywood has had some success in remakes of French movies. Here’s a look at a few that actually turned out okay.

Three Men and a Baby (1987). The 20-plus year wave of French remakes can probably be traced back to the fact that this remake of Trois hommes et un couffin (1985 — which translates to Three Men and a Cradle) happened to be the highest grossing film of 1987. It also happens to be a fun little romp and Leonard Nimoy’s feature directorial debut outside of the Star Trek world. It was followed by a sequel Three Men and a Lady (1990) and rumor has it a third film entitled Three Men and a Bride is in the works which would reunite stars Tom Selleck, Ted Danson and Steve Guttenberg.

They mess with your head, they riff on reality and illusion, they can be somewhat frustrating at times — and yet I love them. With the release of Christopher Nolan’s Inception this week, I thought it would be fun to take a look at some of my favorite cinematic head-scratchers.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). “My God, it’s full of stars.” The lovable old grandpa of movie mind fucks is director Stanley Kubrick and writer Arthur C. Clarke’s seminal sci-fi masterpiece about evolution, strange monoliths and “stargates” that lead to white rooms where you can see various stages of human life unfold in a matter of minutes. I’ve seen the film many times and still don’t completely understand it all, so if you’re looking for answers I don’t have them. But like a lot of films on this list, it’s not so much about understanding everything as it is enjoying the trip.

12 Monkeys (1995). “Oh, wouldn’t it be great if I was crazy? Then the world would be okay.” Time travel is always a good way to mess with people’s heads, especially ones in which the same person ends up in the same location twice but at the same time. Terry Gilliam directs a script by David and Janet Peoples (inspired by the 1962 French short La Jetée by Chris Marker), set in a future where most of the population has been wiped out by a virus and a convicted criminal (Bruce Willis) is sent back in time to gather information about the outbreak.

eXistenZ (1999). “What if we’re not in the game anymore?” Writer-director David Cronenberg spins a yarn about a virtual reality game in which devices called “bio-ports” are inserted into the spines of the players, in a story reminiscent of the stories of Philip K. Dick (a writer whose adaptations show up on this list a couple of times). Naturally the effect is so realistic players can’t distinguish between the game and reality — and neither can we, the audience.

Okay, so it’s kind of a guilty pleasure of mine, except I feel no guilt whatsoever in admitting I love the original Predator (1987), which features the star of many other so-called guilty pleasures of mine, Arnold Schwarzenegger. I always thought it had great sequel potential, yet no great Predator sequels or spin-offs have emerged in the past 23 years. We’ll see if that changes this Friday when the Robert Rodriguez-produced Predators hits theaters.

What made the original Predator so cool was the way it blended a couple of different film genres. It begins as a “crack commando team jungle rescue” flick, in the style of Uncommon Valor (1983), Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) and, to a certain extent, Schwarzenegger’s own Commando (1985). But then it deftly shifts to pure sci-fi action-horror when the members of the crack commando team sense a presence in the jungle and find themselves hunted down one by one, seemingly for no other reason than the sport of it.

Schwarzenegger stars as Major Alan “Dutch” Schaeffer (oh, for chrissakes, does anyone actually remember the names of Arnold’s characters in these movies?), who leads his team of badasses — including Carl Weathers as Dillon, Bill Duke as Mac, Sonny Landham as Billy, and Jesse Ventura as Blaine — into some Central American jungle to rescue some hostages from some guerrilla group. But along the way they discover the skinned bodies of some other special forces group, part of a previous rescue attempt that failed, and their mission turns out to be completely different from what they’d been led to believe — more politically motivated assassination than rescue, with Dutch confronting his old pal Dillon (the one who hired the team for the mission, now working for the CIA), shouting, “You set us up! It was bullshit, all of it!”

I suppose it’s fitting that the follow-up to my Jaws tribute is about a movie that begins with an airplane tail fin emerging from beneath clouds, accompanied by a certain instantly recognizable John Williams giant-shark theme. It’s a movie that reinvigorated the subgenre of comedy known as the spoof and also effectively ended the ’70s disaster genre as we knew it. It is of course Airplane!, which opened 30 years ago, on July 2, 1980.

In the early ’70s Jim Abrahams and brothers David and Jerry Zucker were writing sketch comedy for their Kentucky Fried Theater group in Madison, Wisconsin. Searching for ideas, they accidentally taped a late-night showing of 1957’s Zero Hour! off of a local TV station. The film stars Dana Andrews as Lieutenant Ted Stryker, a WWII fighter pilot who attempts to land a commercial airliner after the pilot succumbs to food poisoning. Sound familiar? And so the inspiration to do an airplane-movie take-off (I swear that pun was not intended) was firmly planted in the trio’s minds. They wrote a screenplay, but were unable to sell it at the time.

(Interesting side note: the script for Zero Hour! was written by Arthur Hailey, who went on to write the 1968 novel Airport, which was made into a movie two years later and became the forerunner for ’70s disaster films, eventually spawning three sequels of its own.)

Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker, as they’re collectively known, went on to write The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977), a series of sketches, fake film trailers, and commercial parodies directed by John Landis. For their next project, which would turn out to be Airplane!, they fought for the opportunity to direct their own script.

This is the movie that changed the way I thought about films and the craft of filmmaking. I’d always loved movies, but I’d never seriously considered that some movies could be better than others. Before Jaws I was completely content with Disney comedies about sentient Volkswagens and field-goal-kicking mules.

Jaws opened on June 20, 1975. It was the first PG-rated film my parents wouldn’t allow me to see, so when school started back that fall, I was pretty much the only fourth grader who hadn’t seen it.

My parents and I finally caught a showing a couple of years later when I was 12, which turned out to be the perfect age. I was literally shaking throughout the entire movie, I was so scared; I’d seen movies before in which animals attacked people, but I’d never experienced anything like this before. Sitting in the back seat during the car ride home from Jaws was the first time I had aspirations of becoming a filmmaker — I wanted to make other people experience what I’d just experienced.

To this day, I think it’s the scariest movie ever made. It also happens to be my favorite movie of all time.

I distinctly remember being surprised by how much you didn’t see during the first half of the movie. I’d heard so much about Jaws on the fourth-grade playground, including meaningful observations like “It’s cool! A guy gets his leg bitten off!” During the first shark attack you don’t see the shark, but it’s just so brutal the way actress-stuntwoman Susan Backlinie flails her arms about and jerks her body back and forth in the water. It’s scarier that you don’t see anything because that’s exactly how it would be if you were the victim — you’d feel yourself being ripped apart from below without being able to tell what was doing it.

As someone who has been a regular moviegoer most of my life, I love movie trailers — but as much as well all love movie trailers, we must acknowledge that sometimes they have a tendency to show us too much. Generally though, that’s never a problem with teaser trailers. In many cases they don’t even show any footage from the movie. As in the case of the recent teaser for J.J. Abrams’ Super 8, some are in theaters before principal photography has even begun.

Superman (1978). One of the very first trailers I remember seeing that didn’t actually show anything from the movie was this one for Richard Donner’s big screen version of the man of steel. It’s a simple concept — one continuous shot soaring through the clouds, with the names of the actors whooshing by (somewhat similar to what would become the title sequence), ending with the Superman shield bursting into the frame.

A couple weeks ago I was excited to discover that a trailer for a secret J.J. Abrams project was going to be attached to Iron Man 2. I learned via Twitter after it was reported on movie-news websites like Slashfilm, FirstShowing.net, and Ain’t It Cool News. Heck, I got caught up in the excitement and even tweeted about the trailer myself.

It quickly became a certified Internet brouhaha. Exciting geek speculation flourished. The last time this kind of thing happened, it was the first trailer for Cloverfield — attached to Transformers in 2007 — another “secret” Abrams project for which little, if anything, was known about the film’s story line. Could this new project be a Cloverfield sequel?

It turned out that the rumor originated on the website Hitfix courtesy of Drew McWeeny, who wrote under the pseudonym “Moriarty” for over ten years at Ain’t It Cool News. McWeeny had discovered that prints of Iron Man 2 were being shipped to theaters in three canisters, with special instructions for the projectionist and a coded electronic lock on the third canister, which contained the first reel, the last reel, and all trailers. Included in the last reel of Iron Man 2 is the sequence that occurs after the end credits, which was shrouded in secrecy itself after the surprise appearance of Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury at the very end of the first Iron Man.

It’s a movie that, on paper, does everything wrong — all of the major action scenes are crammed into the first 40 minutes, and it has no ending. It’s also considered by many to be the greatest sci-fi sequel ever made. On May 21, 1980, George Lucas’s highly anticipated sequel to Star Wars hit theaters.

So why exactly is The Empire Strikes Back so awesome? First and foremost, it has a great screenplay by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan, with George Lucas receiving story credit. Noted science fiction author Brackett completed a draft before she died of cancer in 1978; it’s unclear just how much of her work remains in the film, but Lucas wrote at least one draft himself before hiring Kasdan, an up-and-coming screenwriter who also happened to be working with the filmmaker on the script for a little something called Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).

Kasdan went on to write the screenplay for the underrated romantic comedy Continental Divide (1981), which turned out to be one of John Belushi’s last films, as well as write and direct Body Heat (1981), The Big Chill (1983), and Silverado (1985). His contribution to the success of both Empire and Raiders is immeasurable.

With the second Iron Man installment hitting theaters this week, I thought it’d be fun to take a look at some of the best cinematic adaptations of superhero comic books. Whether it’s a teen bitten by a radioactive insect, an alien from a dead planet who can fly, an industrialist playboy in a suit of iron, or a vigilante billionaire who wears body armor and masquerades as a bat, the costumed crime fighter has graced the pages of comic books since June 1938, when Superman first appeared in Action Comics #1. Prior to that point in literature there were costumed avengers such as the Scarlet Pimpernel and Zorro, but it was in comics where these types of characters flourished. Here are ten of my favorite films that center on comic book heroes.

Most Faithful Adaptation: Watchmen (2009). Admittedly, this is a controversial choice, as Watchmen isn’t universally accepted as a great film. But it’s a very faithful adaptation of what is generally agreed upon by comic book geeks as the greatest comic series ever published — and that’s got to count for something. Personally, I love the film but acknowledge that people unfamiliar with the source material might find it a bit of a mess.

Continuing with my flashback to the 1985 UC Theater double-feature, after The Evil Dead came Wes Craven’s iconic entry into ’80s slasher horror, A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984).

Prior to Nightmare, Wes Craven had written and directed two staples of low budget ’70s horror cinema: The Last House on the Left (1972) and The Hills Have Eyes (1977).

The premise of Nightmare is based on newspaper articles that Craven read in the L.A. Times about Cambodian refugees suffering from disturbing nightmares, who as a result resisted going to sleep. There were also accounts of some of these men actually dying in their sleep, including one who was allegedly screaming as if having a nightmare.

Freddy’s famous red and dark green striped sweater came out of something Craven had read in Scientific American that these two colors were the most difficult for the human eye to put side-by-side.

It’s interesting to note that in Nightmare, there’s a scene with The Evil Dead playing on a television. This was most likely in response to Sam Raimi placing a torn The Hills Have Eyes poster in the background of a scene in The Evil Dead — which was in turn a response to Wes Craven putting a torn Jaws poster in the background of a scene in The Hills Have Eyes. (Raimi had interpreted the inclusion of the torn poster as if to indicate to the audience that as scary as Jaws is, it’s nothing compared to what’s going on in The Hills Have Eyes).

Casting-wise the film is notable for being the first major film role for Johnny Depp, who plays Glen, the boyfriend of heroine Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp).

The original Nightmare is a fairly creepy horror flick which played well to the ’85 UC Theater crowd — with numerous cries talking back to the screen like “don’t go down there” and most importantly, “stay awake!” (The latter comment was directed primarily at Depp’s character, who manages to fall asleep in at least two key moments — of course, none of us knew we were screaming at a future superstar).

Back then, Freddy Kreuger (superbly played by Robert Englund) was a brand-new on-screen psychopath who had not yet become a caricature of himself. He was a creepy-ass child-murdering freak who haunted people — and killed them — in their dreams. Englund went on to play Freddy in every single Nightmare film, with the single exception of the upcoming remake.

Flashback: the UC Theater in Berkeley, circa 1985. The double feature that night was The Evil Dead and A Nightmare on Elm Street, neither of which I had seen, and the house was packed with exactly the “right” crowd for this kind of movie mayhem.

The group I went with that night was the Diablo Valley College Filmmakers Association, the president of which was my high school friend — and now Popdose colleague — Ted Asregadoo. He recalls our group giving The Evil Dead (1981) a standing ovation at the end. While I don’t specifically remember that detail, I do recall the entire evening being one of the most satisfying filmgoing experiences I’ve ever had.

The Evil Dead, directed by Sam Raimi (the Spider-Man series, A Simple Plan), was notorious in the early ’80s for being a relentless, gory, over-the-top horror film, but because it was unrated, it was difficult to find theaters willing to show it. The flick gained further notoriety when author Stephen King reviewed it in The Twilight Zone magazine and called it “the most ferociously original horror film of the year,” a quote smartly added to The Evil Dead‘s posters and newspaper ads.

I remember staring at the videocassette box in my local video store, wondering if I should rent it. I’m glad I held off, though, and that my first viewing was with the UC Theater crowd. Had I watched The Evil Dead alone, I’m not sure what I would have thought, as it’s ultimately a cheesy low-budget effort rife with some extraordinarily bad acting.

Now I embrace it for the iconic horror masterpiece that it is, and I’ve developed a true admiration for its star, Bruce Campbell. I highly recommend his book If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B-Movie Actor (2002) if you’re at all interested in an account of a working actor trying to make a living.

With Kick-Ass hitting theaters soon and with all of the brouhaha that’s sure to be discussed about having a 11-year-old girl (Chloë Moretz’s Hit Girl) sprouting all sort of profanity and committing many acts of violence, I felt it’s time I do a list of my favorite onscreen tough young girls. If you’ve come here for an essay of the so-called controversy itself, you won’t find it here, mostly because I don’t give a shit about it (as far as I’m concerned, the more swearing and violence the better). This isn’t the article you’re looking for … move along, move along.

Iris, from Taxi Driver (1976, Jodie Foster). “How do you want to make it?” Foster’s portrayal of an 12-year-old prostitute earned her an Oscar nomination. While Iris might seem more of a victim trying to get away from her pimp (“Sport,” played by Harvey Keitel), it’s how she faces her world that makes her tough. She’s growing up way too fast, yet still shows signs of still being a little girl, like in the diner scene having breakfast with Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro).

With the new version of Clash of the Titans hitting theaters on Friday, I found it fitting to take a look back at the career of stop-motion pioneer Ray Harryhausen, since 1981’s Clash was the last film to feature his special effects. (He and producer Charles H. Schneer retired when they couldn’t get studio funding for a sequel.) Here are ten of my favorite Harryhausen moments.

Gratuitous Monument Destruction, from Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956). Did I say “gratuitous”? I meant “glorious.” There’s nothing like seeing the destruction of actual monuments, which is exactly what happens in this film’s climactic battle. The Washington Monument and the Capitol Building both get taken out, and Harryhausen delivers pretty much exactly what the title of the movie promises.

In 1976 my parents (reluctantly) took me to see Freaky Friday in one of those newfangled twin cinemas that were starting to pop up around the country. Before the film began the theater showed a trailer for the movie playing next door, Silver Streak, which made my parents regret even more that they’d given in to my demands to see Freaky Friday.

You know that feeling you get when you’re watching a trailer for a movie that’s most certainly going to be better than the one you’re about to see? I know my folks felt that way about Silver Streak. And to a certain extent, as much as my 11-year-old self loved a good Jodie Foster Disney comedy, even I had a hunch I’d enjoy it more.

We confirmed our suspicions within a couple of weeks, though I suspect my parents were very concerned about all the sexual innuendoes in the film — none of which I understood, of course. Curiously, no mention was ever made of the fact that a dude dangling halfway out of a moving train gets his head removed by another train coming from the opposite direction, which lingered in my young mind much longer than whatever Jill Clayburgh was supposedly doing to Gene Wilder.

Silver Streak was directed by Arthur Hiller, who went on to direct another great comedy, 1979’s The In-Laws, with Peter “Serpentine!” Falk and Alan “I have flames on my car!” Arkin. He was also president of the Directors Guild of America in 1989 and president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences from 1993 to 1997.

In 1982 two of my favorite things in the world were science fiction movies and video arcades. When those two passions were merged into a movie called Tron, my brain exploded. Over the years rumors of a Tron sequel came and went, but in 2008 a teaser trailer was shown at San Diego’s Comic-Con, and crappy camcorder footage began popping up on YouTube faster than Disney could issue take-down notices.

Director and cowriter Steven Lisberger was inspired by both the video game Pong and Stanley Kubrick’s 1960 gladiatorial epic Spartacus. Though Tron was one of the early pioneers of computer-generated imagery, there’s a lot less CGI in the film than one might think. While certain shots of the light cycles, tanks, and Solar Sailer are fully computer generated, the bulk of Tron‘s iconic look was created through a process known as backlit animation, in which the actors are filmed in black and white and then colorized using various techniques, including rotoscoping.

In the film’s story, the world of the computer is inhabited by “programs” that are presented in human form, and some of them refer to the people who programmed them as “Users,” though they have no idea what the real world looks like or if it even exists. Programs who believe in the Users are considered to be followers of an ancient religion and are ordered by the MCP (Master Control Program) to renounce their beliefs or else they’ll be forced to fight each other in the video game arena.