Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Horrors of '79

Are beavers actually busy?  I've never been too clear on that, but if the saying is true and they are, then I've been busy like one lately.  Except writing blog posts, instead of building dams or whatever it is busy beavers allegedly do all the time.  Yes, I had a productive week in the blogosphere.  I might even go so far as to say I had a hella productive week: four semi-lengthy posts about the miniseries adaptation of The Stand (here, here, here, and here), plus a review of its soundtrack CD; an invective-filled review of this week's subpar episode of Under the Dome; and, on one of my other blogs, an in-depth look at one of my favorite James Bond movies, The Living Daylights.

Whoo!  That's a mess o' bloggin'!  See what I can do with five days off in a row?

Well, I'm back at work now, but I wanted to get another post out there.  This won't be a lengthy one: it's just a brief review of "The Horrors of '79," a Year's-Best-Movies essay by Stephen King that appeared in the December 27, 1979 / January 10, 1980 issue of Rolling Stone.  I've got a massive list of King ephemera like that which I would love to eventually track down and buy, and I try to cross one off the list occasionally.  I figure I'll start trying to pump out mini-reviews of those items when they get acquired, so consider this a down-payment on that intention.

Rolling Stone back then was a fairly large magazine, and so unfortunately, my scanner is too small for me to scan the cover.  Here's the best image of it I could find via Google Images:

Yeah, it's not much of a cover; we're not missing out on anything there.  I was able to scan the accompanying illustration by Elwood H. Smith, though.  Here 'tis:

1979, of course, was the year Alien was released, so the illustration is riffing on it, and King speaks about it in his essay, too.
Alien, as well as being scary and fun, is the first movie to make a real cinematic success of the ideas and themes worked out by H.P. Lovecraft.

He goes on to describe it as being "perhaps the most suspenseful American film since Wait Until Dark," and ranks it #4 on his Top 10 list for the year.

Much of the rest of the list is also populated by movies that, whether one wants to count them as horror or not, as fairly horrific.  "Any way you want to cut it," writes King, "1979 was a year of fantasy at the box office, and more particularly, a year of horror."  He adds, "In a year that saw buck-a-gallon gasoline, rock's first fifteen-dollar double album (Fleetwood Mac's Tusk), the fall of the shah in Iran and Jimmy Carter in the polls, the nuclear excursion in Pennsylvania and the crash of a loaded American Airlines DC-10 jetliner in Chicago, both the average moviegoer and the Great American Filmmaker had a lot of anxiety to get rid of.  In such periods of low migraine and free-floating angst, the national consciousness dreams uneasily."

Buck-a-gallon gasoline, eh, Steve?  Ah, if only you knew...

This sort of thing fascinates me, and I find King to be exceptionally good at writing it.  I'd love to visit the level of the Tower where King became a professional journalist, possibly somewhat in the vein of Hunter S. Thompson; wouldn't you be fascinated to read that Stephen King's work?

So, what else appears on King's Top 10 list?  Well, at #10 is Breaking Away, starring Dennis Quaid; #9, The In-Laws (Peter Falk and Alan Arkin); #8, The Silent Partner (Elliott Gould); and at #7 and #3, respectively, a pair of Vietnam War films, The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now, about which King had this to say:
Offhand, I can't think of another year when one had to be so careful to separate the real horror movies from the fantasy horror movies.  I suppose both Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter could qualify as "Vietnam fantasies" (one critic of the latter pointed out that there was no Russian roulette in Vietnam; my response was, "Who gives a fuck?  There was enough other stuff").  But what are we to make of The China Syndrome, which is certainly realistic enough but still a horror movie for all of that?
 That movie slides in at a cool #2 on King's list, by the way.

At #6 we have The Ramones' Rock 'n' Roll High School; at #5, the Alan Alda and Meryl Streep film The Seduction of Joe Tynan (which I don't believe I've ever heard of); and occupying the top of the heap for the year, George Romero's Dawn of the Dead.  King speaks highly of the film, calling it "the finest horror film of the year, perhaps of the decade."  He adds:
Dawn is not a pretty film.  It runs two hours and five minutes, and the audiences emerge from the theaters with dazed, uneasy looks, as if they had spent a long lunch hour in hell.  But somehow it achieves a nightmarish hilarity that is perhaps the only valid response to this year.  Even as we look ahead into the frightening final years of the twentieth century, Romero invites to look back with him and cackle madly over a society that is literally feeding on itself.

Elsewhere in the essay, he makes a case for why the movie he awarded a Booby prize to -- John Frankenheimer's Prophecy -- might actually be his favorite movie of the year, though he knows such movies are bad for him:
My roots keep calling to me, and I think longingly back to the flaming cigarette filter that was supposed to be a landing UFO in Teenage Monster or the fur-coated Volkswagen that was supposed to be the spider in Giant Spider InvasionAlien is all very well, but there is still left in me a lot of the kid who went to see "Steven McQueen" in The Blob (not once but four times, at the Ritz, the sleaziest theater in Lewiston, Maine -- perhaps in the entire universe).

With that in mind, it is perhaps not surprising that King assigns a "Boring pretensions award" to Woody Allen's Manhattan.  That bummed me out; I love Manhattan!  I love The Blob, too, though, so I'm with King to a degree.

His Ten Worst Films list includes no fewer than five movies that I have to confess an admiration for, reluctant or otherwise: at #9, Every Which Way But Loose (King points out that it stars "Clint Eastwood and the monkey," which is factually incorrect -- it's an orangutan -- and also apparently supposed to be a negative); at #5 and #4 respectively, Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (both awful, and I couldn't care less); at #1, Rocky II; and at #7, The Amityville Horror, a movie I quite like and feel no shame about liking.

It's a very fun essay, and I only wish King had written one like it every year since.

I haven't spent much time leafing through the rest of the magazine, but two pages later, a full-page ad for Star Trek: The Motion Picture caught my eye and made me very happy; on the next page, an ad for Steve Martin's book Cruel Shoes (there's a full-page ad for his movie The Jerk earlier in the mag); and one pagre after that, another full-page movie ad, for something called Roller Boogie that starred Linda Blair.  That one did not make me happy; it made me bemused and slightly ashamed.

All in all, it seems like a solid purchase.


  1. King is out of his mind to put Every Which Way But Loose on a "Worst Films" list. That is a character study as worthy and interesting as Taxi Driver, and I mean that 100% sincerely.

    I love the In-Laws, though. Watched that a million times growing up. Serpentine Shelly!

    1. I'm an easy mark for anything co-starring an orangutan. It was the sequel I liked the most, which almost certainly means the first one was way better; haven't seen either in decades. I think it's high time for that series to be rebooted, starring Ryan Gosling.