I have far too many unwatched movies on my shelves. Follow me as I attempt to watch all of the ones from the current Year of the Month and figure out what they say about the year in question! Part one (of a hopefully more than one-part series) takes on Comin’ at Ya! (1981), Enter the Ninja (1981), Knightriders (1981), and The Woman Next Door (guess what? 1981).
Nineteen Eighty-One! The first real year of the decade, at least from a cinematic perspective — most 1980 movies will have been made in the seventies, which is a whole other planet. By 1981, we were starting to settle into the decade. People were no longer writing 197- and having to start again, Punk was turning into New Wave, haircuts were somehow becoming even more outlandish, and…erm…Post-It Notes made their long-awaited debut? I don’t know, I wasn’t born yet.
My overstuffed shelves threw up four movies for the year, and as luck would have it, two of them happened to launch new crazes that would sweep the globe. This feels like real start-of-a-decade stuff, the international cinematic community trying out new ideas that could set the tone for the eighties, and for a few brief years, one of the things that really did catch on was 3D, for the first time since the 1950s. And, like the first 3D craze, it was a B-movie that launched it rather than a mainstream hit. Comin’ at Ya! seems to have been developed as an attempt to use new technology to relaunch the Spaghetti Western. It was a complete failure on that front but blew enough minds to convince Hollywood to take another swing at the extra dimension, leading to such wonders as a terrible Friday the 13th sequel, a terrible Jaws sequel and, uh, Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone… which was enough of a flop to end the glorious second wave of 3D.
Watching Comin’ at Ya!, it’s easy to see why it succeeded on one front and failed on another. As an advert for the Western genre, it’s pretty weak: the barest hint of a revenge plot, some paper-thin characters, and a distinct shortage of action. But as a three-dimensional, Western-themed amusement park ride, it’s an absolute blast — anything that can be thrust at the camera will be thrust at the camera! Even the opening credits are a 3D tour-de-force as our protagonist ponders the tragedies of his past while inspecting a room full of items that have the cast and crew names written on them. At full arm’s length. While facing the camera. It’s an exceptionally silly film and probably absolutely insufferable to watch in 2D, but the same could be said for most second-wave 3D movies. “Without this movie, Dennis Quaid would have battled a shark in two measly dimensions” might be a very small footnote in history, but it is history all the same.
Meanwhile, over at the Cannon Group, a craze with more staying power was about to begin. Enter the Ninja is credited with launching the fad for ninjas in Western movies that would — with significant assistance from a bunch of teenage mutant turtles — continue well into the ’90s. It wasn’t the first US movie to include ninjas, but they’d largely cropped up as villains for action stars to mow down, as in the previous year’s Chuck Norris vehicle The Octagon. Enter the Ninja changed the game by having a heroic ninja as well as villains, and was therefore perfectly primed to set a trend for fifteen years of straight-to-VHS movies suitable for a teenage boy’s birthday party.
The third movie in Cannon’s Ninja trilogy, Ninja 3: The Domination, has deservedly become a cult favorite through force of sheer weirdness — it’s about a ninja spirit that possesses an aerobics instructor, whaddaya need, road map, etc. The film that started the craze is a little more straightforward, but it does have enough oddball personality to elevate it from most B-movie action trash. An entertainingly miscast Franco Nero (who would have been great in Comin’ At Ya!, incidentally) plays the lead, a veteran of the Namibian War of Independence (uh huh, sure) who has since been fully trained in the art of ninjutsu (OK, why not) before being summoned to the Philippines where his army buddy is being harassed by a wealthy businessman who has his own synchronized swimming team (…) and, of course, a diminutive henchman with a hook for a hand (hell yeah). The main plot is pretty revenge-by-numbers but the offbeat details keep it entertaining, and the extremely forgiving full-body ninja costumes ensured profitable work for stunt doubles for well over a decade. It should also be noted that the initial idea for Enter the Ninja was presented to Cannon by Mike Stone, the American karate champion who trained Priscilla Presley in martial arts and then stole her away from Elvis. 1981! A magical time!
Enter the Ninja’s trashy popcorn appeal feels very much part of the decade to come, whereas George A. Romero’s bizarre follow-up to Dawn of the Dead very much feels like a hangover from the decade that had just ended. Knightriders is the kind of movie that only a director coming off a big success could make, a two-and-a-half-hour hangout movie set among a group of bikers who dress as medieval knights and joust for the entertainment of paying viewers while trying to live by a code of chivalry. The unusual setting feels unexpectedly personal to Romero: there’s a sincere affection for the characters and their lives as they run into various low-key personal and professional issues. There’s very little plot to summarize — Ed Harris is the “king” of the troupe despite the ongoing efforts of Tom Savini’s dark knight to dethrone him, although their professional rivalry is balanced out by a mutual respect. Some conflict arises in the form of a local cop who occasionally tries to shut them down (for no real reason other than he’s an asshole, it seems), but the most important plot thread is a division in the group after some of them approach a PR agency in the hopes of expanding their audience while King Harris tries to keep it real and do it for the love of…motorbike jousting.
It’s an extremely shaggy movie that takes Dawn of the Dead’s “small group versus the world” premise and removes the mortal threat, leaving something with an almost Altman-esque ensemble hang-out vibe. Romantic entanglements, motorcycle injuries, and the balance between art and commerce ensue, with some really fascinating characters and a great cast including some familiar faces from other Romero movies — John Amplas from Martin, Ken Foree and Scott Reiniger from Dawn and Romero’s wife and regular collaborator Christine Forrest. Stephen King also makes his motion picture debut as “Hoagie Man,” a very hungry man who is convinced that the jousting matches are fixed, like professional wrestling. 1981!!
Finally, over in France, one career was coming to a close as another continued to rise. François Truffaut’s penultimate film The Woman Next Door stars Gérard Depardieu, who was roughly another decade from global stardom but had already worked with many of the great European directors…including Truffaut: the previous year they had swept the César Awards with The Last Metro. Woman Next Door failed to achieve anywhere near the same level of critical or financial success but it’s an enjoyable melodrama, and Depardieu and Fanny Ardant have some really strong chemistry. She plays an old flame who unexpectedly moves in next door and quickly rekindles their old relationship, even though they are now both married to other people. Needless to say, this results in disaster, and while the plot is a little formulaic, the star power of the leads keeps things compelling throughout. Depardieu is a problematic character these days, but watching him at the peak of his powers, he’s pretty magnetic and does a tremendous job elevating the material, and Ardant’s very much his equal. Their respective partners each feel a little underwritten but the tension builds well and there’s a real sting in the tail. And, of course, Truffaut is an old pro who keeps things moving nicely.
So, what do these four movies tell us about 1981? It was a year in transition — the era-defining blockbuster successes of Jaws and Star Wars had hit just a few years earlier and a decade of glorious excess was still finding its feet. Veterans like Truffaut and Romero were still doing good work. The Spaghetti Western was finally on the verge of dying out, but 3D was back! Ninja movies and the Cannon Group were about to experience their golden era (no doubt aided by the rise of VHS). And, lest we forget, a young couple in the south of England were about to conceive the most important release of 1982: me!