Four films were released the weekend of July 25-28, 1985. And now, 28 years later, I look at all of them in the latest Journal. We’ve got the return of the Griswolds in EUROPEAN VACATION, the Disney animated epic THE BLACK CAULDRON, the teen comedy THE HEAVENLY KID and the Jim Varney-led DR. OTTO AND THE RIDDLE OF THE GLOOM BEAM.
KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN was also released in a single theatre this weekend, where it made quite a splash. Look for that in the coming weeks.
SCOTT’S FILM GEEK JOURNAL – ENTRY 58
THE BLACK CAULDRON (1985) – Taran longs to be a warrior like the great knights he has heard about for so long. Unfortunately, he is stuck serving as the assistant pigkeeper to what he’s told is a very important piece of walking pork. But it turns out that the pig is important, as it can see the future and use its psychic powers to find the mysterious Black Cauldron. Whoever controls the Black Cauldron can control the world, and that is just what an evil skeletal overlord called the Horned King wants to do. The Horned King already holds much of the world in his thrall, but with the Cauldron he can raise an army of the undead that will make him invincible. The Horned King captures Taran and the pig, though they soon escape along with their new allies Princess Eilonwy, Fflewddur Fflam the minstrel and a furry kleptomaniac named Gurgi. The Horned King pursues them, knowing that Taran will likely lead him straight to the Cauldron.
As I’ve mentioned earlier in the Journal, there was a long period where Disney was floundering badly. 1985 showed them at their most desperate. Touchstone hadn’t really taken off yet and yet Disney knew they would have to appeal to more than just the kiddies. This led to several high-profile, big budget fantasy films like THE WATCHER IN THE WOODS, THE BLACK HOLE (1980), TRON (1982) and RETURN TO OZ (1985). None of these caught on. THE BLACK CAULDRON was their most ambitious project, a $25 million film that spent five years in production. It utilized a combination of cutting edge technology and traditional techniques, some of which hadn’t been utilized for many years. The film wound up being one of the biggest disasters in the studio’s history. This can be traced back to the post-production. Jeffrey Katzenberg, who joined Disney after the film was mostly completed was reportedly shocked by the dark and violent content of the film and starting hacking the film in an editing bay himself. Shots of graphic violence and implied sexuality were cut out, not just individual shots but several completed scenes.
And yet, when it was released, it still caused a great deal of controversy since it dealt with frightening images like the Horned King and his army of “cauldron born.” Conservative groups freaked out and the public didn’t know what to make of it. After all, Disney cartoons were always considered safe territory. That they would dabble in something a little more adult was considered outrageous at the time.
But if THE BLACK CAULDRON suffers from any problems it is that there is such a varying tone. Every now and then we get a suggestion of the dark film that it wants to be. But most of what’s left is rather light-hearted. Still, it feels like we have a fantasy epic that’s not really that epic. The journey certainly doesn’t take them very long and it feels like there is a lot missing. I cannot say for sure how much was cut from the film print, but much was omitted from the two Lloyd Alexander books on which this film is based.
But is THE BLACK CAULDRON really that dire? No, not at all. In fact, watching it again, I found it quite enjoyable. The film is beautiful to look at, with some gorgeous hand animation intermingling with some then-revolutionary shots. The story is interesting all the way through and the voice work was great. Show it to your kids today, I’ll bet they dig it.
Puritanism is the enemy of artistic innovation. THE BLACK CAULDRON is an interesting and entertaining film, but one cannot watch it without noting how it’s a trifle compared to what was planned. This is a film with lofty aspirations, if only it had a chance to realize them. ★★★ (out of ★★★★)
DR. OTTO AND THE RIDDLE OF THE GLOOM BEAM (1985) – The IMDB lies! They have this film listed as a 1986 release. But in the research compiling 1985 films, our own Jesse Hoheisel has documented proof that DR. OTTO was indeed given a limited release on July 26, 1985.
This is the film Jim Varney made before the ERNEST films. The main character is Dr. Otto von Schnick (a.k.a. Dr. Otto von Schnickickick), an evil genius with a hand growing out of the top of his head and a desire to bring the world to its knees. His new Gloom Beam seems to do the trick too. Playing havoc with magnetic fields, Otto’s Gloom Beam effectively destroys all matter of financial transactions, plunging the world into economic chaos. He says that he will continue to hold the world at his mercy unless someone can solve his riddle. This brings Otto’s nemesis chasing after him. Lance Sterling is the all-American good guy and Jesus H. Christ, is he ever annoying. He is painfully naïve and not too bright, and yet he is loved by everyone for his gee-willikers, can-do attitude. The film chronicles how Otto and Lance have been enemies since birth. Lance is born into a wealthy, loving family. Meanwhile, Otto is dumped in an alley before his mother, the nurse telling her, “Bad news, it lived.” Any chance that Mike Meyers appropriated this for his Dr. Evil character? Possibly. And yet, Sterling is just covering up his own insecurities, as he is unable to come to terms with his own failures.
In order to trap Sterling, Dr. Otto assumes the identity of various other people. And they just aren’t trying to trap Sterling, they seem to be their own people, which is strange. But if you try to make sense of all the logical holes in this film, you’re going to go insane.
When Jesse found this film, he was wringing his hands with glee. I know he’s seen this and I know he hates it. And after all of the films I had seen that I got to share with Austin and Jesse (TOMBOY, GWENDOLINE, etc.), well I’m sure they wanted some payback.
Sorry, Jesse and Austin. I actually kind of liked DR. OTTO AND THE RIDDLE OF THE GLOOM BEAM, and I’ll bet if I see the film again, I’d like it even more. The film is a showcase for the comedic talents of the late Jim Varney, and it’s quite a revelation. I sort of despised the ERNEST franchise. But here, Varney portrays several characters, including Dr. Otto, the militia general Rudd Hardtact, the pirate Laughin’ Jack (who spouts a hat with an iguana living in the brim), the middle-aged Jewish woman Auntie Nelda, the rich and conceited Guy Dandy (my favorite) and yes, Ernest P. Worrel. More than the toilet humor of some of his later films, this shows Varney to be a versatile comic talent and this film more than any other I had seen actually made me feel the loss of not having him around anymore.
Of course, the film has more than its share of problems. Chiefly among these is Mueller in the role of Lance Sterling. He’s supposed to be annoying, sure. But there might have been a touch of overachievement on this note. This character will make you want to jump through the screen, punch him in the face and then stomp on kittens in front of him, just because it would make him cry. DR. OTTO may be a dumb comedy, but it is also pretty darn charming and provides more than a couple chuckles. ★★½ (out of ★★★★)
THE HEAVENLY KID (1985) – In the 1950s, two rivals are drag racing their cars to prove who is the toughest. Cool kid Bobby Fantana commits a little too much and drives his car straight off a cliff. When he dies, he is told that he wasn’t quite bad enough for Hell, but wasn’t quite good enough for Heaven either. To prove himself worthy of the pearly gates, he needs to do a good deed. Okay, so save someone’s life? Grant a dying child’s last wish? Nope, apparently the afterlife are just as concerned with status as every other living asshole. Bobby is transported to 1985 where he is assigned to be the guardian angel of a shy nerd (Jason Gedrick – IRON EAGLE). He has to get him to dress better, act cooler and get the hot blonde in his high school.
Holy shit, really? I’m sorry, but I have hated THE HEAVENLY KID for a long time. I was hoping I’d never have to watch this film again, but here I am. The two leads are pretty rotten and the whole film just feels like a testament to every 1980s comedy that ever did everything wrong. One thing that I do enjoy in the film – Robert Mulligan. He plays Bobby’s angel, Rafferty. This was in the middle of a few cool roles for the veteran actor and he livens things up whenever he’s on screen.
For the most part, THE HEAVENLY KID is pretty horrible, full of tired jokes that weren’t funny when they were fresh twenty years before. And it’s not even the worst film of the week. ★ (out of ★★★★)
NATIONAL LAMPOON’S EUROPEAN VACATION (1985) – The Griswalds win a game show and get a trip to Europe. That’s all. That’s the plot. They go to various countries and wackiness ensues. Also, the kids are older this time. So, Rusty (Jason Lively – NIGHT OF THE CREEPS) is trying to get laid while Audrey (Dana Hill) is trying to keep tabs on her figure and her boyfriend back in the States.
The original VACATION was a wild and different film. It really was a moment in time perfectly captured. It was a crazy comedy, but Clark Griswold really did feel like a guy who wanted the all-American family that he was brought up to revere. All the characters felt genuine, no matter what was thrown in their path.
EUROPEAN VACATION settles on bad slapstick, such as accidentally knocking over Stonehenge. The kids are no longer likeable and really neither is anyone else. Even a decent cast can’t make up for what a complete misfire this film is. And yet, the film was a huge hit, unseating BACK TO THE FUTURE at the top of the box office. And yet, I honestly can’t think of anything else I would want to say about this film. What a waste of time, life is just too damn short. People still have a soft spot for the VACATION films, but the second film is a big loser. ZERO STARS (out of ★★★★)
BOX OFFICE CHAMPS – JULY 26-28, 1985
1. NATIONAL LAMPOON’S EUROPEAN VACATION (1,546 screens) $12.3 million (1st week)
2. BACK TO THE FUTURE (1,506 screens) $9.5 million ($66.7 million – 4 weeks)
3. E.T., THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL (Re-release) (1,701 screens) $5 million ($19.2 million – 2 weeks)
4. THE BLACK CAULDRON (1,276 screens) $4.2 million (1st week)
5. MAD MAX: BEYOND THUNDERDOME (1,412 screens) $3.6 million ($25.8 million – 3 weeks)
6. SILVERADO (1,179 screens) $3.2 million ($15 million – 3 weeks)
7. COCOON (980 screens) $3.16 million ($52 million – 6 weeks)
8. RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II (1,259 screens) $2.9 million ($135 million – 10 weeks)
9. PALE RIDER (1,068 screens) $1.8 million ($36.3 million – 5 weeks)
10. ST. ELMO’S FIRE (754 screens) $1.62 million ($26.1 million – 5 weeks)
11. THE HEAVENLY KID (1,019 screens) $1.61 million (1st week)
source: Box Office Mojo
Number of films covered in the Journal so far: 259
Miss any of the previous Journal entries? Check them out here!
And tune into my new web series, Moviocrity!