28 years ago this weekend, the biggest star in the world was Wilford Brimley. The weekend of June 21-23, 1985 marked the time COCOON toppled RAMBO at the box office. But we also have Tobe Hooper’s LIFEFORCE and Disney’s ambitious RETURN TO OZ to consider. And continuing the work from our 1985 podcast, I’m here to give you the lowdown on these films.
SCOTT’S FILM GEEK CENTRAL – ENTRY 48
COCOON (1985) – Three senior citizens living in a St. Petersburg, FL retiree community try to get some rebellion out of life by routinely breaking into a vacant estate and using their Olympic-sized swimming pool. They continue doing this, even after the estate is rented to some strange people who have begun putting large rocks in the bottom of the pool. In fact, it is after the appearance of these rocks that their deteriorating senses sharpen and they begin to have a new zest for life. What they soon discover is that the rocks are alien cocoons being harvested by extra-terrestrial visitors. The challenges of getting a second chance at youth are coupled with the dilemma of keeping the aliens’ secret.
This, more than any other, was the film that cemented Ron Howard’s reputation as a talented director. He had directed three comedies prior to this (GRAND THEFT AUTO, NIGHT SHIFT and SPLASH!), the most recent of which had fantasy elements. With COCOON, he strayed from the comedy formula and created a science fiction film with a very human center. He managed to conquer the critics and the box office with a strange film that boasted several actors who were previously been dismissed as being past their prime. The three leads all do amazing work. I would also like to take this time to recognize how amazingly great Brian Dennehy is as the leader of the alien explorers. He approaches the part with just enough otherness to seem a little off, and yet he is very congenial and even humorous in his interactions with the humans. A perfect example is in the scene where he is confronted by Steve Guttenberg, who had just discovered their secret while they used his boat to aid in harvesting the cocoons.
Where the film falls flat is in the introduction of Brimley’s grandson, David (Barrett Oliver- D.A.R.Y.L., THE NEVERENDING STORY). He seems to be in the film to exist as a link between Brimley and his Earthly responsibilities. There is also a halfhearted attempt to paint David as being scared of living. But the film doesn’t really care about him. It drops him for more than an hour and only brings him out again when they feel the need for an ill-advised chase sequence at the end. ★★★ (out of ★★★★)
LIFEFORCE (1985) – The space shuttle Churchill is on a joint American-British expedition to study Haley’s Comet. They discover a derelict alien spacecraft hidden in the comet’s tail. Further inspection reveals thousands of long-dead giant bat creatures and three living, slumbering, naked, unreasonably sensual-looking humanoids. The Churchill is discovered several weeks later, floating close to Earth’s orbit, with all the crew members dead but the humanoids preserved. They are brought back to Earth where they wake up and being seducing people, before sucking out their lifeforce and starting a vampiric plague. As the plague continues, an SAS officer (Peter Firth) teams up with the Churchill’s psychologically-tormented sole survivor (Steve Railsback) to stop it at the source.
I love LIFEFORCE something fierce. I mean, what’s not to love? You have a big-budget sci-fi/horror epic, complete with great visual effects from John Dykstra. You’ve got a very naked and impossibly gorgeous Mathilda May walking up to people and sucking out their lifeforce as blue streams fly around the room. You’ve got a whole lot of stiff upper lip British people wondering what to do while Railsback freaks out. You’ve got cameos by recognizable faces such as Patrick Stewart, Frank Finley and Aubrey Morris (A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, THE WICKER MAN). And to top it off, the brief vampiric plague scenes that close the film can only be described as the most awesome and epic zombie apocalypse 1985 would ever dare.
Tobe Hooper said that he set out to make a $35 million Hammer film and that’s what he did. There is a lot of boobage, special effects and shiny stuff but it really is the old QUATERMASS model of storytelling. It’s insanely fun, although the film gets incredibly convoluted at times. And this is the 116 minute international cut I’m talking about. The truncated 100 minute version released in America was an even harder nut to crack. Nevertheless, LIFEFORCE is really a marvel and Scream Factory’s recent Blu-ray release is a godsend. And speaking of nuts, mmmm Mathilda May… ★★★½ (out of ★★★★)
NOTE: Trailer contains nudity and is NSFW.
RETURN TO OZ (1985) – For his first and only directing assignment, Walter Murch said he never intended to film a follow-up to MGM’s THE WIZARD OF OZ. Instead, he meant this film to be a direct follow-up to the original Frank L. Baum novel. Murch’s memo never got back to Disney because RETURN TO OZ was a huge deal in 1985, and yes the advertising and press painted this film as a sequel to 1939’s classic film. It is even still listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as a sequel to Victor Fleming’s classic (it’s there because of the amount of time that passed between “original;” and “sequel”). This was a big event, the most beloved family classic of all time, branded with the Disney touch. They even had the premiere engagement at Radio City Music Hall.
And then people actually saw the movie, and everyone immediately went into therapy.
RETURN TO OZ begins with Auntie Em taking Dorothy to an asylum to receive electroshock therapy. and it just gets worse from there. A storm cuts the power to the asylum just as Dorothy (Fairuza Balk, by far the best thing in the film) is about to get zapped. Another little girl rescues her and the two are swept away by the rapids (For most of the film, we’re also led to believe that Dorothy’s friend drowns, because yay trauma.). She winds up in Oz again (don’t ask, the film doesn’t tell), only to discover that the place is a wasteland and all her friends have been turned to stone. Rather than the magical creatures she remembered, the place is instead littered with sand that kills you and wheeled monstrosities that act like Matt Frewer on a double espresso. Dorothy tries to save Oz by first coming up against an evil woman who steals people’s heads and stores them in her collection (Oh yeah, she puts them on, because otherwise she walks around without a head, David Gale-style. Having nightmares yet, kids?). She then winds up at the mountain of the Nome King (Nichol Williamson), who is responsible for Oz’s troubles. She’s also aided by a talking chicken, a living sofa with the head of a donkey-moose, a robot that even Dorothy admits is poorly conceived and pumpkinheaded mutant with tragic mommy issues.
I get criticized for my love of horror, but between this and LABYRINTH, I don’t want to hear any more of your crap, people. This is far more terrifying, far more psychotic than anything Dario Argento ever dreamed up. RETURN TO OZ is a film that replaces joy with nightmare fuel in the way most people would substitute butter and margarine. It honestly can’t tell or doesn’t care about the difference. It’s dreary and haphazardly scripted. It was known as one of the worst films of 1985 and a major disaster for Disney, whose film division still hadn’t reached the end of its twenty year decline. Time has been more kind to the film, but it really shouldn’t be. This really is a confoundedly terrible film. ★ (out of ★★★★)
BOX OFFICE CHAMPS – JUNE 21-23, 1985
1. COCOON (1,140 screens) – $7.9 million (1st week)
2. RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II (2,074 screens) – $7.3 million ($97 million – 5 weeks)
3. THE GOONIES (1,705 screens) – $6.3 million ($32.6 million – 3 weeks)
4. LIFEFORCE (1,526 screens) – $4.2 million (1st week)
5. FLETCH (1,223 screens) – $4 million ($31 million – 4 weeks)
6. PRIZZI’S HONOR (722 screens) – $3.3 million ($9.8 million – 2 weeks)
7. RETURN TO OZ (1,238 screens) – $2.8 million (1st week)
8. A VIEW TO A KILL (1,245 screens) – $2.5 million ($40.1 million – 5 weeks)
9. BREWSTER’S MILLIONS (965 screens) – $1.7 million ($33.8 million – 5 weeks)
10. SECRET ADMIRER (1,265 screens) – $1.7 million ($5.6 million – 2 weeks)
source: Box Office Mojo
Number of films covered in the Journal so far: 220
Miss any of the previous Journal entries? Check them out here!
And tune into my new web series, Moviocrity! – Episode 4 just published this week!