CW: rape-revenge film discussed, animal attack & medical gore descriptions
A new year means a new opportunity to write about movies celebrating big anniversaries. I’ve already written about 10 movies turning 10 in 2021 that I love and think are worth your time, and now I’d like to highlight a smaller group of movies turning 40 that I believe deserve more attention, respect, and, of course, love.
1981 was both an important and a great year for movies. To be clear, those two things aren’t always the same. Landing on the more important than great side of the spectrum are the first sequels in the Halloween and Friday the 13th franchises, both of which now have more than 10 entries (and that’s ignoring the remakes). It was both a great and important year for cult film, as some of my picks will also highlight, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, Scanners, The Beyond, The Evil Dead, and An American Werewolf in London all made their debut 40 years ago. Writing for the Chicago Film Scene I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Michael Mann’s debut Thief which remains the most Chicago movie I’ve ever seen (yes there are a lot I still need to see). And then a little movie called Raiders of the Lost Ark also came out in 1981.
But I’m not here to write about any of those as they’re all well celebrated. I’d like to draw your attention to four movies celebrating their 40th anniversaries that I believe deserve more fanfare than they’ve been afforded in the past.
I realize that I’m asking to be told that these aren’t that obscure and that I should go watch _________ if I want to see an actually obscure movie that came out in 1981, but just think of this as me screaming out into the void of the internet about some movies that I love and think you should love too. And honestly, if you have more obscure movie recommendations, please let me know!
1. Roar (directed by Noel Marshall)
Roar may be the greatest cat video of all time. It’s a feature length semi-fictionalized narrative film that’s based on writer, producer, director and star Noel Marshall’s family, including Tippi Hedren and a young Melanie Griffith, moving into a home filled with big cats. Marshall and Hedren fell in love with lions and learned about their endangered status while Hedren was filming Satan’s Harvest in Mozambique in 1969. They then decided to make a film about the animals to increase awareness about poaching and other dangers. They began adopting big cats and bringing them to their home in California, and over the course of the production accumulated more than 150 of them, as well as two elephants and a number of birds.
Roar has a minimal plot overwhelmingly focusing on the family as they arrive at a home filled to bursting with lions, tigers, leopards, cougars, black panthers, and a tigon. Watching Roar is a strange experience, one that’s simultaneously delightful and extremely stressful, because while there’s joy in seeing all of these beautiful animals, there’s a very real fear that they will hurt someone.
And they did. Roar is perhaps sensationally or perhaps rightfully described as “the most dangerous movie ever made.” At least 70 members of the cast and crew were injured in the making of the film. Marshall was bitten more than 10 times during the course of the shoot, cinematographer Jan de Bont (who went on to direct Speed) was partially scalped by a lion and required 220 stitches, and after assistant director Doron Kauper was almost fatally attacked by a lion who went for his throat, a number of crew members quit and walked off the set.
It’s strange to describe a movie that caused so much real harm as “a delight,” but there is a real joy in simply watching these beautiful animals. The film is also still marketed as a comedy, and there are moments throughout that are genuinely funny when you are able to ignore how dangerous it all is. Roar is a must watch for any big cat lover and anyone interested in a truly wild experiment in filmmaking.
2. Ms. 45 (directed by Abel Ferrara)
It may seem like a strange plaudit but Ms. 45 is one of the smartest rape-revenge films I’ve ever seen. Ms. 45 is certainly still an exploitation film that contains more sexual violence than necessary even for a rape-revenge story and a significant body count, but it’s also doing more than just delivering thrills.
There are a number of things that make Ms. 45 stand out as a genuinely thoughtful piece of transgressive art. The protagonist’s name is Thana, the feminine form of Thanatos, the personification of death in Greek mythology. Thana is mute, and a number of the men that she interacts with in the film never even notice this because they are entirely uninterested in what the women that they speak at have to say. The men in the film are from a variety of ethnic backgrounds highlighting that Thana’s gun knows no discrimination on the basis of race but is entirely focused on a gender. Thana’s muteness also means that there’s an emphasis on purely visual storytelling for much of the film, something that helps to place the audience into her experience.
Ms. 45 is also remarkable for the fact that star Zoë Lund was only 17 at the time of shooting and was heavily involved in the creation of the character of Thana and the shape of the film overall. Ms. 45 isn’t an easy film to watch but it’s a special movie that covers the exploitation to intellectual film spectrum beautifully.
3. Son of the White Mare (directed by Marcell Jankovics)
Son of the White Mare is the most difficult of the movies on this list to write about. Not because there isn’t much to praise, but because so much of the film’s power is visual. The film’s animation is so detailed, rich, and fluid that it can be a bit exhausting to look at because there’s so much to take in.
The film is the second feature from director Marcell Jankovics, best known for his short Sisyphus which was nominated for an Oscar for best animated short film in 1976 and then appeared in a 2008 Super Bowl commercial. Son of the White Mare is based on Hungarian folklore and Jankovics brings the stories to life with breathtaking animation.
I hope I get the chance to see it on a big screen one day. But until then, I will recommend it to anyone I know that is at all interested in animation.
4. The Decline of Western Civilization (directed by Penelope Spheeris)
Likely the most well known film included here, Penelope Spheeris’s document of the punk scene in LA in the late 70s and early 80s still deserves more and so does Spheeris. She should be a big(ger) name and not “the director who made Wayne’s World” to many people.
The Decline of Western Civilization is important not just on its own but also as the first of a trilogy of documentaries that Spheeris made across 17 years between 1981 and 1998, each chronicling a different counterculture moment and scene in Los Angeles (which just so happens to be my home city, but no that has nothing to do with how much I love this movie).
The Decline of Western Civilization is a great film despite some uncomfortable and often aggressively off-putting sequences. In fact many of these sequences, the most significant of which comes in the form of a Fear concert in which frontman Lee Ving antagonizes the crowd with sexist and homophobic slurs, end up being a strong point of the documentary and keep it from simply serving as a hagiography of a scene and all the people in it.
The interviews with bands (including X, Black Flag, The Germs, and more) and fans are interesting, often funny, and (as noted) sometimes seriously disgusting. A number of the fan interviews don’t leave out any unsavory aspects of the scene, highlighting racism, sexism, anti-semitism, and homophobia. It’s not fun to watch or to acknowledge that some music you love comes from a scene with so many flaws, but it’s important to highlight these issues in what seeks to serve as an accurate portrait.
What really makes the film such a special experience though is the concert footage. Spheeris’s camera places the audience firmly into the experience of these shows, some of which are in venues barely over the size of a basement. I haven’t done the math on how much of the film is show footage, but the impact of these sequences make it feel like they are at least half of the movie.
If you are at all interested in punk, you need to watch this movie.