They don’t make em like this anymore, and that goes for both the protagonists of Joe Begos’s VFW and the film itself. Coated in 16mm grain, dripping with gorgeous, driving 80’s style synth music and packed wall to wall with excessively gory, blood soaked extreme violence, this film feels like the old school right to the bone. Set in a particularly nasty urban hell where the opioid crisis has reached a breaking point, a group of tough, battle hardened Nam and Korea veterans fight til the death to protect their local VFW hall and drinking spot from a gang of evil marauding drug psychos out to get their stolen product back. It’s a barebones siege thriller infused with schlock from one angle but there’s a deeper level, care and attention paid to each of these characters, wonderful dialogue that has the scent of improvisation and super game performances from these familiar faces of the VHS golden age of genre filmmaking. Stephen Lang (Tombstone, The Hard Way, Manhunter) heads up the pack as ringleader and Fred is joined by beloved familiar faces including blaxploitation icon Fred Williamson (From Dusk Till Dawn, MASH, Vigilante), Martin Kove (The Karate Kid, Rambo II, Death Race 2000), George Wendt (Fletch, House, Space Truckers), William Sadler (Die Hard 2, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, The Shawshank Redemption) and David Patrick Kelly (Twin Peaks, 48 Hrs, The Crow). These guys are totems of a bygone era in terms of themselves and the characters they get to play. They all got their start in the industry back around the 70’s and 80’ when the age of VHS was just getting underway, and as such represent a time when you’d walk into a video store and see the horror/action sections adorned with countless titles just like this one. In the film itself they play these veterans with a strong sense of brotherhood, camaraderie and community, the kind I imagine you could only get from serving together or simply knowing what it’s like to be in the shit. The film shows a reverence for these old dudes as they fiercely rage against the dying of the light and lament a large portion of the younger generation lost to drugs. It’s also just a kickass fucking horror fest with retro sensibilities, a Wild Bunch meets John Carpenter with a dash of Panos Cosmatos kinda vibe. My favourite film so far this year and highly recommended, provided this aesthetic is your thing.
The 80’s are coming back in a big way within film and television and with them comes the always awesome sonic synth sounds of that era. One of the pioneering musical influences and inspirations in this movement is German electronic group Tangerine Dream, consisting of group members Edgar Froese, Paul Haslinger and a whole host of others who contributed over the years. They literally have hundreds of albums due to the simple fact that they loved to experiment with sound and release all sorts of eclectic material, first on tactile vinyl and these days strewn across the internet like hidden treasure. They also worked heavily in film, lending their pulsating, ethereal, gorgeous and incomparable aesthetic to many genre cult films throughout the 80’s. They are my favourite film composers of all time and it’s hard to pick but I narrowed their work down to ten of my favourite original compositions for film! Enjoy:
10. Rainbow Drive (1990)
This is admittedly an unspectacular film, an L.A. noir starring Robocop’s Peter Weller as one tough cop caught up in your garden variety political conspiracy complete with extortion and murder. The score here is driving, grungy while still airy with just the right hints of menace and murky danger. Favourite track: the moody, slow crawling opening theme.
9. Flashpoint (1984)
Another noirish conspiracy flick, this is set in the New Mexico desert and sees two opportunistic border guards (Kris Kristofferson and Treat Williams) run afoul of dark forces headed by a cynically corrupt federal agent (Kurtwood Smith) and apparent ties to the Kennedy assassination. The work here is arid, dusty and atmospheric, accenting the remote, lonely locations well and swelling up portentously when danger looms over the sun n’ sand drenched horizon. Favourite track: Highway Patrol, a clap of rolling backroad thunder that suggests the danger to come.
8. Ridley Scott’s Legend (1985)
This old school fantasy is mostly remembered for a young Tom Cruise as the hero and Tim Curry as evil itself with a demon getup that puts the Devil from Tenacious D to shame. Dream composes a lyrical, melodic playlist here that holds the beautiful imagery and special effects onscreen nicely. Favourite track: ‘Loved By The Sun’, a particularly lovely passage of ambience.
7. William Friedkin’s Sorcerer (1977)
This fierce, arresting adventure film sees several lowlifes and hard-cases from around the world transporting giant trucks loaded with volatile nitroglycerin through the South American jungle. You can imagine the fun that Dream would have composing this score and they don’t disappoint, their score doesn’t properly kick in until we first see the trucks nearly halfway through the film, but when it does you feel it like a sonic boom. Favourite track: ‘Betrayal’, an intensely affecting, dark hued composition.
6. Michael Mann’s Thief (1981)
The elemental group goes decidedly more urban in Mann’s early career crime masterpiece about an expert safecracker (James Caan) taking one one last heist. The music is moody, dark and nocturnal to suit Mann’s blooming aesthetic we know so well today. Favourite track: ‘Final Confrontation’, a sweeping piece that plays overtop a blisteringly cathartic slow motion shootout and carries over into the end credits with epic grit and grace.
5. Mark L. Lester’s Firestarter (1984)
Drew Barrymore and David Keith battle nefarious government forces in this thrilling Stephen King adaptation, made more so by Dream’s rhapsodic score, which suits the supernatural, trippy tone of this story so perfectly. Favourite track: ‘Charley The Kid’, a layered, star speckled composition that has a forceful edge appropriate for the character but also a playful curiosity that reflects her childlike mind.
4. Steve De Jarnatt’s Miracle Mile (1988)
A film about a potential nuclear attack on Los Angeles seems like it would have a traditional Hollywood-esque score but this is the brilliant, unconventional cult classic that is Miracle Mile and it greatly benefits from the talents of Dream to make it so. Their proverbial surname fits like a glove here because there is an overall dreamy aura to this nocturnal neon nightmare, I’ve had a few dreams myself about impending, inevitable nuclear or otherwise inflicted disaster, probably why I connect so well with this material. The score may seem counterintuitive but there’s a momentous drive to it and lighter, brisk areas to underscore the very sweet romance at its core. Favourite track: ‘Running Out Of Time, which sets the ‘anything can happen’, pins and needles apprehensive mood just amazingly.
3. Rockstar Games’ Grand Theft Auto 5 (2013)
Any hardcore GTA fan knows that the main musical component that everyone looks forward to and remembers are the car radio soundtrack choices, but there’s also original scores deftly layered into the action, missions and cutscenes. Everything from heists to shootouts to plane rides to car chases to boat derby’s and every spectacle in between is outlined here in a California-lite series of compositions that see Dream slightly evolve out of their 80’s synth sensibilities yet still retain the essential soul that says ‘this is our work.’ Favourite track: ‘North Yankton Memories’… because I couldn’t count the amount of times this brilliant piece kicks in the minute I do something naughty, that two star wanted level pops up and the LSPD come careening down the highway after me.
2. Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark (1987)
Atmosphere haunts this cult vampire western about a young cowboy (Adrian Pasdar) seduced by a gorgeous waif (Jenny Wright) and swept you in the brutal nomadic lifestyle of her roving clan. Desert sunsets, blood on chrome, choking smoke, hurtling police vehicles and the occasional moment of nocturnal solitude, it’s a rigorous, ravishing aesthetic and Dream gives it their all with an intermittently droning and ariose work. Favourite track: ‘Mae’s Theme’, a low key, hovering piece that accents the tragic nature of her character.
1. Michael Mann’s The Keep (1983)
This film is something of an artifact, hacked to pieces in the editing process by the dipshits at Paramount, causing Mann to disown the film and yank any distribution rights. One day he’ll cool off and we’ll get a decent Blu Ray. It’s a stunning piece of pseudo Lovecraft WWII supernatural horror and one of my favourite films. Dream’s score echoes throughout the halls of this Romanian structure as German soldiers, metaphysical warriors and Jewish historians try and piece together the meaning behind this ancient place. Favourite track: ‘Gloria’, a synth laden piece with orchestral strains and beautiful vocal work, full of mystery and reverence.
What do you get when you mix up Rutger Hauer, a sword disguised as a cane, John Locke from Lost, that huge biker dude from Raising Arizona, a whole armoury of high artillery, several car chases and enough 80’s looney toons action aesthetics to fuel a bus? You get Phillip Noyce’s Blind Fury of course, one of the best and most entertaining action films of the era. Hauer is Nick Parker, a blind Viet Nam vet who was trained in a small village and knows the ways of the sword, better than some people who still have their eyesight in fact. He’s back stateside looking for his old army buddy (Terry O’Quinn), who has been captured by a nasty Reno crime kingpin played by Noble WillingHAM who never passed by an opportunity to ham up a performance royally because look it’s right there in his name. After O’Quinn’s poor wife (a short lived Meg Foster) is murdered by his thugs, Nick takes unofficial custody of their young son (Brandon Call) and sets out for bloody revenge against the Ham and his weirdo cohorts, which include two rambunctious cowboys (Nick Cassavetes and Rick Overton) and one giant ugly son of a bitch called Slag, played by perennial Brick-house henchman Randall ‘Tex’ Cobb. Hauer brings a lighthearted charm to the carnage, a vibe that sneaks into the film as a whole and makes it something more fun and cartoonish despite it being violent as all fuck. It’s funny when you consider that director Noyce (Dead Calm, The Saint, Patriot Games, The Bone Collector) usually accents his thrillers with a somber tone. Here it’s all fun and games, Rutger gets one of his most playful and humorous roles, portraying a blind guy convincingly, doing a great job with the stunts and showing what a dope leading man he was. One particular sequence I love best is an epic highway chase with Overton and Cassavetes who are just two bickering, brawling morons. It’s a jacked up, GTA style slice of explosive escapism as jeeps, vans and cars careen all about the overpass and you can really see the budget blowing up onscreen, it’s a showcase 80’s vehicular smackdown. Great film.
The world is currently obsessed, it seems, with 80’s throwback media, and as a die hard fan of the style, I say bring on as much of the delirious synth music, lurid body horror and deep cut, bleeding neon as possible. From Stranger Things and It Follows to The Void it’s been a heyday renaissance, and Adam Wingard’s The Guest is a bit more obscure but no less of a celebration of the genre. Working from a vague Terminator/bone smashing action vibe, it’s a neat reworking of the ‘invincible antihero thrown into quiet suburbia’ vibe, but that’s so specific that maybe it just invented a new sub-sub genre. Dan Stevens is a a steely eyed new talent who has shed his Downton Abbey pretty boy image like a snakeskin and emerged as a serpent of solid tough guy portrayals (check out his awesome bad/good guy work in A Walk Among The Tombstones), and he carries the whole flick here as the mysterious David, a strange and scary dude who shows up on the doorstep of an all American family, claiming to be the army buddy of their deceased son. There’s clearly more to the story, as the familiar formula sinks in and unwinds, but it’s terrific fun watching it all play out time and time again. He’s got a particular set of skills reminiscent of the super-soldiers of that era, impresses the family patriarch (Leland Orser) who shows simultaneous fascination and suspicion with this new dark stranger in their household. He also gets close with their daughter (It Follow’s Maika Monroe), until he’s heavily invested in her’s and the family’s life, but it’s also the one thing that’s putting them, and the whole damn neighbourhood, on a course for trouble. Death and danger seem to follow David, like when a shadowy Army spook (Lance Reddick subtly channels 80’s Danny Glover) shows up looking for answers, and despite his emerging best intentions for the family, at the end of the day he’s a volatile black ops asset that can barely control his own trajectory. It’s a slight film that breezes by and never hits too hard, but sits in the genre groove wonderfully, with all cast members giving good shout outs. Wingard made his debut years ago with an impressive little Troma-eque bizarro slasher flick called Home Sick, went on to collaborate on the famed VHS anthology series and has wowed yet again here, I hope he continues to be a wicked voice for horror. Composer Steve Moore lets the synths rip, roar and rumble for a score that’s right up my 80’s fanatic alley, and gilds the film neatly. Cool stuff.