Some movies are so perfectly crafted that, despite the passing of time rendering fashions and technologies obsolete, their stories remain as relevant and captivating as they were when they first appeared.
There’s another category of movie, meanwhile, on which time has an entirely different effect. Where Citizen Kane or Alien have aged like fine wine or matured like posh cheese, others no longer look quite as convincing as they did on their initial release.
Which brings me to the topic of this list, which looks back at 10 of the films that, for a youth addicted to TV movies and VHS tapes from the corner shop, once thrilled and terrified at every turn. Some 20 years on, many of them are still hugely entertaining, though not for quite the same reasons their directors intended…
The Swarm (1978)
Forget Alien, The Exorcist or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre – it was the 1978 movie The Swarm that launched a thousand nightmares. For little me, there was something absolutely terrifying about the concept of death by bees – as depicted in the film, the swarm of killer insects was a black cloud of destruction that could strike anywhere.
There were two scenes in particular that stuck with me for years. One involved the disruption of a picnic, in which a small boy watched helplessly as his parents were stung to death. The other sequence saw the same small boy, now traumatised, gripped by hallucinations in which a bee the size of a car menaced him as he lay in a hospital bed.
Viewed in 2011, I’m glad to report that The Swarm has lost much of its power to terrify. In fact, Irwin Allen’s commonly derided disaster movie is perhaps one of the funniest films ever made, with spectacularly ripe dialogue (“Oh my God, bees! Bees! Look at the bees! Air Search two-eight to base. Bees! Millions of bees!” says a helicopter pilot, clearly impressed by the bees) and genuinely appalling special effects.
Meanwhile, Michael Caine stands around in a brown roll-neck sweater looking bored, and no doubt thinking about the stuff he can buy with his pay cheque.
The Intruder Within (1981)
Another movie that gave me sleepless nights as a nipper, The Intruder Within is essentially Alien set on an oil rig. A crew of grizzled workers (one of whom looks uncannily like Charles Bronson, with a beautifully cultivated moustache) dredge up a clutch of ancient eggs from the bottom of the ocean, and one hatches into a screeching, drooling, Giger-inspired monster that stalks and kills the cast one at a time.
The Intruder Within’s made-for-TV status means it’s far less convincing as a horror movie than Ridley Scott’s moody, stylish Alien, but this was entirely lost on me as a youth, and the film’s lumbering predator terrified me out of my wits.
Is it as scary 30 years after it was made? Well, not exactly…
Missile firing, flying jet bikes? Dune buggies with lasers? It seemed so exciting at the time. Today, I can’t even remember what the story behind Megaforce was. In fact, I suspect there wasn’t one. But I distinctly remember being thrilled by its numerous motorbike versus tank battles.
Almost three decades later, it’s now evident that Megaforce was shot in the desert on a budget of about £20. Remarkably, the director was none other than Hal Needham, who was also responsible for Smokey And The Bandit and The Cannonball Run.
Like most of the films on this list, Megaforce is still a great watch, and its meagre production values provide some great unintended laughs. The film’s clearly had a strong influence on Trey Parker and Matt Stone, since Team America’s mechanised war on terror has numerous parallels to the squad of heroic bikers in Needham’s 80s masterpiece. And, if nothing else, Megaforce spawned one of the finest trailers I’ve ever seen.
Based on the bestselling novel by Craig Thomas (whose books all had titles that used the names of animals in a macho fashion – see also Wolfsbane, Sea Leopard, Jade Tiger and the kinky-sounding Playing With Cobras), Firefox had a premise that read like the ultimate boy’s-own adventure: Clint Eastwood playing a former pilot on a mission to steal a top-secret experimental fighter plane from behind the Iron Curtain.
An aircraft so advanced that you didn’t even have to waggle a joystick (“Think in Russian” is one character’s advice for Eastwood), the titular Firefox was an unspeakably cool-looking craft.
Sadly, time hasn’t been too kind to Firefox, and with my nostalgia glasses removed, it now looks like a relic from a bygone age (which it is). Even as a kid, it seemed to take years for Eastwood to finally clamber into Firefox’s cockpit, but I seem to recall the film’s aerial sequences, once they finally arrived, being really exciting.
John Dykstra’s special effects no longer look as special as they once did, though the design of the plane itself still looks quite impressive, in an angular, 80s sort way. Again, great trailer, though. “Great mother of God, he’s up!”
Starflight One (1983)
Just to prove that I’ve always been drawn to brilliantly awful movies, this 1983 disaster movie, starring Lee Majors, was one of the first movies I remember seeing in the cinema as a kid.
This is particularly odd when you consider that the film was a shot-for-TV feature in the US; I’m not sure whether it was given a proper theatrical release in the UK, or whether the tiny provincial fleapit I used to attend somehow got hold of a copy of it and decided to screen it off its own bat, but in either case, I distinctly remember sitting in the cinema watching this in the early 80s.
Also known as Starflight: The Plane That Couldn’t Land, the film was about the maiden flight of a “hypersonic” passenger craft that flies outside the Earth’s atmosphere. Needless to say, things go awry and only Majors can save the day. Despite its TV origins, Starflight had a pretty good pedigree, with special effects again courtesy of John Dykstra, music from the great Lalo Schifrin, and a chiselled pilot hero in the shape of Majors.
My hazy memories of Starflight are of a gripping, terrifying bad trip that had me saucer-eyed with excitement. To my youthful mind, there was absolutely nothing absurd or far-fetched about its premise, nor did I consider its acting wooden. In fact, I probably assumed I was watching a documentary, in which that chap out of The Fall Guy and The Six Million Dollar Man saves an entire plane full of passengers from death in zero-gravity.
Even a quick glance at the film’s US TV trailer reveals that Starflight isn’t quite as realistic as I remember it. The hair’s bigger, the clothes baggier, the dialogue cheesier. And just to make a mockery of the movie’s US title, Starflight concludes with Majors bringing his high-tech bird safely to land.
Still, minor details such as these faded into the insignificance once faced with cutting-edge computer graphics like this:
Jaws III (1983)
Rather embarrassingly, I watched Jaws III several times as a kid, and for many years I actually thought of it as the best film in the series. For one thing, it was far pacier, I once thought, than either Spielberg or Jeannot Swarc’s movies, which went for slow build up rather than relentless shocks. And while Roy Scheider’s sorely absent (replaced here by Dennis Quaid in the lead), the body count’s far higher, and I really liked the concluding sequence where the crazed shark attacks an underwater tunnel full of Florida tourists.
As an adult, I now realise just how low-rent and unintentionally funny Jaws III often is. The special effects, in particular, are dreadful (there’s one shot of a submersible that looks like something out of a 50s B-movie, with parts of the background visible through the model thanks to some iffy matting).
Now something of a guilty pleasure, I often find myself watching Jaws III when it appears at around one in the morning on an unknown cable channel, though I’m still mystified as to why my 10-year-old self liked it so much. In fairness, it’s still several times better than the astonishingly bad Jaws: The Revenge, which ranks among the most abysmal sequels ever produced.
Caravan Of Courage (1984)
I think I must be one of the few Star Wars fans who don’t hold a pathological hatred for the Ewoks in Return Of The Jedi. And when Caravan Of Courage arrived a year or so after the concluding Star Wars movie, I greatly enjoyed the further adventures of those space bears from Endor’s moon.
Sadly, Caravan Of Courage’s low-budget TV production values have become more glaringly apparent over time, and the effects and costumes look far, far more dated than those in Jedi. It’s also worth noting that, without the evil Empire to kick against, the Ewoks really are just a bunch of cute bears bumbling about in the woods.
The show’s makers also had the strange idea of having the Ewoks speak English. As a result, Wicket W Warrick now talks like a furry Peter Lorre. Most distracting.
The Wizard (1989)
I was 12 by the time The Wizard appeared on VHS in the UK, so I probably should have known better than to be drawn in by it. Nevertheless, I found myself oddly entertained by this film about a group of kids (among them Fred Savage, then riding high on his Wonder Years fame) who head off to California to compete in a videogame contest.
I was completely seduced by the constant glimpses of dozens of great videogames and gadgets, such as Ninja Gaiden and Super Mario Bros. 3, and those Power Glove things that looked futuristic, but nobody bought. As a result, I completely failed to notice that the entire film was just a swiftly-made commercial for Nintendo. Nor did I notice that The Wizard actually has quite an impressive cast, with appearances from Beau Bridges, a young Christian Slater, and an even younger Tobey Maguire.
As an adult, The Wizard is now rather difficult to watch, with a dream-like absence of logic, flat script and blatant product placement. Nevertheless, as a glimpse into an era of bleepy 8-bit gaming, it’s like a 100 minute 80s time capsule, and a fitting epitaph for the ill-fated Nintendo Power Glove.
Robot Jox (1990)
Directed by Stuart Gordon and starring Gary Graham, Robot Jox is set in a post-apocalyptic future in which political disputes are resolved by setting giant robots on each other in a massive arena.
My memory of Robot Jox is of a fast-paced movie in which gigantic robots beat each other to scrap in a procession of genuinely gripping hand-to-hand combat scenes. 20 years later, the robots now look a lot less convincing than they used to, and I certainly don’t remember it taking approximately three days for the lumbering mecha to walk to the centre of the arena in each battle.
Nevertheless, there are some great anime-inspired mecha designs, and the film as a whole exudes a pulpy, goofy charm, even if the effects don’t convince as they once did.
For more giant mecha brawling, see also 1990’s Crash And Burn, which was directed by Charles Band, producer of Robot Jox, and 1993’s Robot Wars, directed by his brother, Albert. Together, they’re a startling trilogy of mechanised chaos.
Any film based on a popular manga/anime series and starring both David Gale (the lecherous Dr Carl Hill in Re-Animator) and Mark Hamill can’t be all bad, and Mutronics, or The Guyver as it was better known outside the UK, is still great fun. It has to be said, though, that I don’t remember the Guyver suit looking quite as rubbery as it did 20 years ago, and someone appears to have replaced the Zoanoids with a bunch of rubbery post-midnight feast Gremlins.
Like Robot Jox, however, Mutronix is still goofily enjoyable, and the fact that its fight scenes, in which its bio-boosted hero does battle with an army of slimy mutants, look like something out of the 60s Batman series only adds to its tacky charm.
Mutronics was followed by Guyver: Dark Hero in 1994, in which writer, director and producer Steven Wang created a more faithful rendering of the source manga, which was both more violent and better made than its rather quaint predecessor.
It’s the tacky, wobbly Mutronics, however, that will always have a special place in my heart. And as a quick search through YouTube has revealed, the film’s even more fun when watched in German…
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