Sometime in my early youth, I realized I would one day have to work for a living. This seemed unfair, especially as I already had a mumsy and a da-da to provide everything. Later at high school a counselor asked me about my dream job. I truthfully replied it was to not have a job. Alas (and as you’ve probably found out), dreams rarely come true and so I had to enter that horrifying world known as employment.
Can’t say it went well.
In fact, during my two-decade stint as a journalist and teacher I never earned a promotion. I merely trudged along the bottom of whatever institution I was stagnating within. Some parties might suggest that this was down to a lack of talent or hard work, but I like to think it was more to do with relentless disdain and the occasional assault upon an annoying colleague. At least my lengthy malaise enabled me to come up with another dream: namely, to retire as soon as possible, a vivid fantasy that bizarrely eventuated in my mid-40s after landing one of the cushiest jobs in the history of humanity. This well-paid exercise in tax-free torpor involved an eight-hour week with no boss or responsibility at a newly built, utterly dysfunctional Saudi Arabian university that was the teaching equivalent of the unfinished hotel Sid James and co endure in Carry On Abroad.
As a result, I now waste most days watching flicks, the experience of being a wage slave only ever troubling me in the form of the odd bitter memory. And so, when it comes to the movies, I feel qualified to recognize a kindred spirit. Straightaway I can identify a floundering actor impressing no one. Indeed, I must admit such a sight generates a certain delight, although this tends to give way to a mountainous envy in the way their cash-stuffed, awards-laden careers panned out.
Demi Moore in Blame It on Rio (1984)
There was a point in the mid-nineties when Moore’s fevered ego threatened to engulf the planet. Not that you could have predicted the possibility of such a cataclysmic event back in the early eighties. Having already starred in the sci-fi-horror clunker Parasite, a pre-boob job Moore then played second fiddle to the voluptuous Michelle Johnson in Rio.
Bad move, sister.
Indeed, the beach scene in which Moore stands topless next to the similarly unclothed Johnson is a treat. Self-consciousness is not the word. The poor girl (knowing she lacks the feminine weapons to compete while doing her best to drape her long hair over her modest assets) looks like she wants the hot sand to open up and swallow her. Now I have zero evidence for what I’m about to say next (and in my book that makes it a near-fact), but I wouldn’t be surprised if this discomforting moment provided the bitter jet fuel for Moore’s heady ascent into divadom that culminated just over a decade later in Striptease’s pneumatically enhanced, hey-ma-look-at-me shenanigans.
Anyway, back to Rio. Boy, this sex comedy took one helluva critical battering with many objectors zeroing in on the creepiness of the married, middle-aged Michael Caine having it off with the seventeen-year-old Johnson. Seems harsh to me. Caine doesn’t initiate contact, his wife’s just left him, and what bloke in his right mind has the willpower to resist such a care-free Amazonian temptress? People don’t half take movies too seriously.
In truth, I quite enjoy the oft-funny Rio with its vibrant depiction of Brazilian beach culture. Then there’s the perky dialogue, Caine’s appealing performance, the abundant nudity, and its unashamedly amoral vibe. As for Moore, she plays Caine’s daughter, although her underdeveloped, mildly resentful character merely flits in and out, contributing zip to the plot. She’d definitely go on to have bigger and better days at the office, even if she made us all suffer in the process.
Patrick Swayze in Skatetown, U.S.A. (1979) and Steve Guttenberg in Can’t Stop the Music (1980)
Attempted cash-ins don’t get any more blatant than these two flops, the roller disco-centered Skatetown and The Village People pseudo-biography Music. Amid the former’s kitsch musical numbers, moronic skits and near-constant dancing, Swayze barely makes an impression in the opening half-hour. He’s Ace Johnson, the cocky, snarling leader of the West Side Wheelers, a roller-skating gang that wears leather waist jackets, chews gum, shoves people over and occasionally breaks things. One even has a three-inch knife, making me wonder if this lot went on to kick some serious ass in the same year’s The Warriors.
The muscular Ace insists he’s tough, although he does have a fondness for flicking his hair and doing synchronized pirouettes with his kowtowing mates beneath a glitter ball. All he has to do is click his fingers and everyone obeys. Trouble’s on the horizon, though, in that it’s time for the annual Skatetown dancing contest and our undefeated champ doesn’t recognize a name on the entry list. Suddenly he’s up against ‘Valley Boy’ Stan Nelson (Greg Bradford), a chilled blonde rival with the expression of a goldfish who avoids soft drinks before skating because the sugar upsets his timing. Their tense first confrontation enables Swayze to spit out some killer lines and demonstrate his nascent acting chops. “Skatetown is on my turf,” he warns Stan while not painting his nails. “I make the rules, I win the contest, I take home the trophy, the dough and the women.”
“What are you afraid of? You’ve got all the aces, Ace,” Stan coolly retorts, flicking a playing card at him. Ace catches the card to dramatically reveal the Ace of Spades before they puff out their chests and launch into a whole load of playing card-themed threats (“Maybe I got a better hand”, “You don’t beat aces”, “I don’t bluff” etc.).
Cripes, Swayze’s debut is embarrassing, exemplified by a bare-chested, three-minute dance solo in which he pretends his belt is a whip and cavorts around the rink like a young, particularly camp Indiana Jones. Then again, he fits in fine alongside Happy Days stalwart Scott Baio, a Cuckoo’s Nest mental patient, an amorous dwarf, a creepy DJ in a massive pink afro, a stand-up comic whose head is encased in a paper bag, a cross dresser, and a real-life Playboy model woodenly trying to order pizza. Perhaps we should put the blame for this slapdash, outrageously padded piece of dreck on the script which, of course, was written by a man who had not long finished playing Halloween’s insane, unknowable killer. As for the trained dancer Swayze, it’s fair to say he put his talents to better use in Dirty Dancing.
A year later Steve Guttenberg decided Swayze hadn’t come across as an absolute tool and that he, too, could enrich his burgeoning career by not only swanning around on skates but upping the camp factor by consorting with a lot of mustachioed, gyrating men that I suspect might be gay. Whereas his forerunner (foreskater?) plumped for mean and moody, Guttenberg opts for giddily effervescent, wearing out his welcome about a third of the way through Can’t Stop the Music’s fucking awful opening titles in which he twirls, claps and minces along a busy Manhattan Street. Believe me when I tell you Julie Andrews put in a manlier shift in The Sound of Music. During Can’t Stop the Music’s near-unwatchable two hours, the atrocious, hyperkinetic Guttenberg is so nauseatingly upbeat that I had my fingers crossed he was either going to self-combust or be raped to death by The Village People.
Tom Cruise in Endless Love (1981) & Taps (1981)
This isn’t the most dazzling of insights, but sometimes a movie can surprise you. I went into the Razzie-nominated Endless Love expecting a sappy, badly acted load of Lionel Richie-tinged schmaltz but found it beautifully shot, engaging and possessing some memorably whacked-out scenes. Its moral is also quite easy to grasp: regular doses of fifteen-year-old pussy can send you round the bend.
The Cruiser pops up in a thirty-second cameo as a high school student playing soccer. He looks so young and weird that he’s barely recognizable. He doesn’t even sound like Tom Cruise. The first thing he does is take his shirt off, even though Iceman is nowhere in sight. Then he confesses to having been an eight-year-old arsonist in a barely comprehensible account of juvenile naughtiness. Frankly, his debut is about as impressive as Brooke Shields’ chest.
In terms of screen time, things improve in the drawn-out, faintly loopy Taps. Here Tommykins moves on from tales of irresponsible fire lighting to wearing a natty red beret while chatting about Dungeons and Dragons or watching Star Trek. He’s a pumped-up cadet at a military school, only too happy to sit behind a heavy caliber machine gun when a decision on high to shutter his brain-warping residence is rejected by the kids. Quite what enough military-grade weaponry to reinvade Nam is doing at a school for youngsters aged twelve and up is never explained. Meanwhile the gung-ho, shaven-headed Cruise takes his shirt off again and works out in front of the mirror, perhaps still yearning for Iceman’s approving glance. Sure, he’s more convincing in Taps than Endless Love, but loses a lot of marks for gunning down a member of the National Guard rather than his insipid boss, Ordinary People’s Timothy Hutton.
Sadly, the planned sequel Showerheads never materialized.
John Ratzenberger in Motel Hell (1980)
I’m afraid Ratzenberger (whose fifty-year career has included battling rubbery monsters in Warlords of Atlantis, popping up on the ice planet Hoth in Empire Strikes Back, cavorting with Joan Collins in The Bitch and voicing hugely successful Pixar characters like Toy Story’s Hamm) remains nameless in this early appearance. He’s simply a member of a gigging rock band called Ivan and the Terribles, a name that suggests a sense of humor but not exactly oodles of musical talent.
Worse, he’s the drummer.
Anyhow, at least the goateed Ratzenberger and co appear to be enjoying life on the road. That is until a demented farmer places a couple of bear traps on the bitumen, causing their stricken van to plunge off the highway. The musicians are then scooped up, taken back to the isolated farm and… planted. That’s because this particular cannibalistic purveyor of processed meat likes to fatten his ‘crops’ before turning them into human sausages. And to add injury to injury, he also removes their vocal cords.
Ratzenberger spends most of this inspired horror comedy up to his studded leather collar in dirt with a bag over his head. I don’t think he even gets any lines, which some would argue is a blessed relief given there’s no known instance of a drummer saying anything worthwhile. At least he proves adept at hissing and gurgling.
Phoebe Cates in Paradise (1982)
Seventeen-year-old Phoebe might be a Silly Girly throughout this Blue Lagoon rip-off, but she’s so hot she even makes a chimp masturbate. She’s a virginal English rose called Sarah crossing the desert of early 19th century Iraq when her caravan is attacked by a bunch of pesky Arabs. She escapes the slaughter, but unfortunately gets stranded with huffy fellow teenager David (Willie Aames), a repressed Christian who thinks nudity is a sin. They find an oasis and… Well, I’m sure you can pencil in the rest with your filthy mind. David, however, is such a petulant girl that Sarah’s eventual blossoming into womanhood more or less qualifies as a lesbian awakening.
In two minutes flat they build a house full of furniture, as well as a garden with a sheepskin-covered love swing. They also invent the bikini and fail to have one interesting conversation. A circus-trained chimp then turns up, perhaps on vacation from Africa. Soon it’s playing hopscotch. Bizarrely, another one turns up ten minutes later. Where the hell are all these primates coming from? Has a nearby zoo blown up or something? No matter, for they keep Sarah and David company and provide a running commentary on their relationship by aping everything they see. Oh, how I laughed!
Cates, who regained some dignity in Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Gremlins, has long disowned this nude fiasco. Hardly a surprise, given its dodgy ninety minutes subject her to being impregnated by a particularly wooden co-star and pursued by a murderous slaver hell-bent on tasting Western female flesh. She also chirps the saccharine title song: ‘When I’m with you, it’s paradise/No place on Earth could be so nice…’
Bill Paxton in Mortuary (1982)
If you ever want to see a young actor unaware his head has turned into a chunk of ham and he’s pissed his pants, do your best to catch this early 80’s slasher.
Poor Bill. Poor, poor Bill.
Even if this movie didn’t feature a host of unexplained or irrelevant ingredients, such as devil worshiping, a table-rocking séance, roller-skating, electrical shortages, a burst of junior college and a long dead person coming back to life, it still wouldn’t be much cop. But then Bill wheels out his full-on crazy act, trying to channel a Psycho-era Anthony Perkins, a yen for Mozart, some corpse paint, heavy breathing and fifty pounds of Stilton into a credible character.
Our future Aliens star plays a tank top-wearing nerd with an unrequited crush on a hot chick called Christie (Mary Beth McDonough). At one point she politely accepts a red rose, instilling so much joy that he giddily skips away. We sense this is the highpoint of their burgeoning romance. I dunno, perhaps she’s put off by his job. After all, he is an embalmer at his dad’s mortuary, despite only looking about seventeen. Apart from that, he dresses up in a black, hooded cape and runs around stabbing people to death with an embalming tool. Now don’t go thinking I’ve just let slip a spoiler because although he tries to disguise his face, he’s the most blatantly easy to identify killer since Basic Instinct.
Somewhat predictably, his heartfelt love for Christie curdles and he decides the next best thing in their relationship is to pump her full of fluid – embalming fluid, that is. “I don’t want to harm you,” he tells her in his best Scooby-Doo villain voice while she’s afflicted by one of her periodic sleepwalking bouts. “I just want to touch you.” Despite being in the land of nod, she still manages to outwit him.
Perhaps I shouldn’t scoff so much at his utter inability to convey insanity. Lots of famous actors like Holly Hunter and Tom Hanks built up momentum in crappy horror flicks. I doubt any were as painfully unconvincing as Paxton, though, who snatches at and misses every scene. Nor did they end up in a tux cheerily conducting an imaginary Mozart concert in a room full of corpses.
Richard Gere and Tom Berenger in Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977)
Goodbar is an awkward, anti-men effort about an outwardly respectable Catholic teacher of deaf kids who spends her nights immersed in sex, drugs and bad disco songs. I don’t think it’s much cop, but should be watched for the usually restrained Diane Keaton giving us plenty of T & A, its potent non-pc tang and an ending that redefines uncompromising. It also contains the goofily theatrical contributions of two unknown actors who would rise to prominence during the 80s.
Gere is one of Keaton’s bar-hopping lovers. He’s a narcissistic tool, happy to play imaginary drums and piano at the busy bar while waiting to be served. Well, fair enough, we’ve probably all done that after sinking a beer or two, but it’s a telling insight into his love of playacting and pronounced lack of self-consciousness. When he spots Keaton, his pickup line is the wonderfully original “Come here a lot?” before deriding the other nearby women as ‘dogs’. Then he offers the ‘best fuck’ of her life. I must admit I feel sophisticated next to this vain, in-your-face hustler, but Keaton’s self-esteem is so crippled that she still goes home with him. Hmm, maybe I’ll give his approach a try after all.
Back at her apartment, he not only satisfies her between the sheets, but does so without coming. Then he jumps out of bed to do push-ups in his jockstrap while spouting humorous poetry: “Guys always make passes at girls with bare asses” and “You’ll never have the knack till you make it with a black.” Still in his jockstrap, he proceeds to whip out a fluorescent switchblade and do some sort of high-kicking Bruce Lee routine in front of the mirror. I could go on about his ADD crassness, but I think you’ve got the picture when it comes to grasping Gere’s energetically embarrassing, no, plain terrible, debut. He’s like a child pulling on mom’s arm throughout, taking full advantage of the director’s hands-off approach.
Berenger fares no better as a closeted homo. He’s introduced at a gay disco, jiving with some mustachioed chaps before giving his bearded lover a big kiss and enjoying a well-earned beer. Seems happy, eh?
Things really start to unravel on New Year’s Eve when Berenger (dressed as a woman) gets attacked in a parade, leaving him to run through the streets in his blonde wig, black panties and high heels. As minor early roles go, I have to say this isn’t too dignified. “Don’t you ever ask me to wear this crap again!” he shouts at his sobbing, clown-attired lover, a not unreasonable request as it does seem to upset those 1970s homophobes. “Christ! Look at us! You know what we are? We’re a couple of freaks!” As his distraught lover begs him to stay, an enraged, bottle-throwing Berenger storms off with the memorable line: “I’m a pitcher, not a catcher!” Flounce-wise, it’s one of my favorite exits.
Determined to prove his manhood, he then wipes off his lipstick and heads for a bar where he continues spitting out bitter lines while doing his best to convince anyone within his self-loathing orbit that he hates the world. “You think I’m queer, don’t you?” he hisses at one over-friendly dude by the pinball machine before bumping into the half-sloshed Keaton.
“You seem friendly,” she says.
Dave Franklin’s latest movie book, Bunch of Snake Freaks! A Brit’s Take on Dead Pets, Sleazeballs and Other Fun Movie Stuff is now available.