Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948, D: Charles Barton, W: Robert Lees, Frederic Rinaldo, John Grant)
I first saw this as a very young kid watching the Saturday matinee shows they used to broadcast in regional markets — mine was Seattle — often with a host but always with a theme: Chiller Matinee, Sci-Fi Saturday, whatever worked for the station and their budget. I remember vividly being too frightened by Frankenstein’s monster. I must have been 6 or so. I told my mom , “This movie is for grown-ups.” But it was formative. Just a couple years later, I couldn’t get enough horror movies, books about horror movies, anything I could get my hands on. I scoured the school library, the local video store, the public library, and anywhere else I could find out more about Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, the — at the time — impossible to find Hammer Films. This movie started a lifelong affliction and addiction — in the best possible sense — to classic horror. We showed it at my house at my last Halloween party.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981 D: Steven Spielberg, W: Lawrence Kasdan, George Lucas, Philip Kaufman)
I’m not saying that Raiders of the Lost Ark should never have a sequel. I just wish it wasn’t the sequels we got. Have you tried to watch Indiana Jones and the Lost Crusade lately? Raiders of the Lost Ark was the greatest thing a 12 year old boy could ask for. The other movies were distant shadows of the original, with increasingly disconnected plots, chase scenes and gags. I couldn’t even make it through the last one. This particular entry just barely beat out the following films that also shouldn’t have had a sequel: The Hills Have Eyes, CHUD, The Blues Brothers, Escape From New York. If you even try to convince me there was a good reason for Escape From L.A., we need to talk.
The Evil Dead proves that an entire career and franchise can be built on imagination and ambitious creativity, regardless of budget. Sam Raimi’s “ultimate exercise in grueling horror” was shot in Morristown, Tennessee in a cold, cow-dung-covered cabin. By the time the crew froze out and left, it was only Raimi, producer Rob Tapert and actor/future star Bruce Campbell left to complete filming. And then they shot four days of re-shoots (in Wisconsin, in someone’s aunt’s basement, I believe). Joel Coen edited the film. It had a brief theatrical release, and then nothing. For a while. Until home video, and every teenage boy started to discover it. What we found was the most inventive, thrilling, seat-of-the-pants horror film we’d ever seen. The Evil Dead 2 gets all the love, but the original is still my favorite; it proves you can do pretty much anything as long as you have determination, dogged perseverance and, preferably, lots and lots of stage blood.
This one falls squarely in the Guilty Pleasure category because, for some time, it was always on cable. And if it was on, I wound up watching it. More than a couple times. I feel funny even telling you this. I have no rational explanation whatsoever. Tate Donovan invents a love potion. Sandra Bullock has bad hair. The end.
Blazing Saddles (1974 D: Mel Brooks, W: Mel Brooks, Norman Steinberg, Andrew Bergman, Richard Pryor, Alan Uger)
It’s tough competition with the Marx Brothers out there, but Blazing Saddles has the most consistent joke per second rate of any film I can remember. Brooks wanted Richard Pryor to play the lead — a role that went to the great, unsung Cleavon Little — but the film’s underwriter wouldn’t insure him. So Brooks asked Pryor to co-write the film. Pryor, the story goes, wrote a lot of the straight jokes in the film — he created Mongo — but would tell the rest of the writing team which racially-pointed jokes worked and which went too far. Harvey Korman is unbeatable as Hedley Lamar (“That’s HEDLEY”), Slim Pickens gets some of the best lines, and a cast of brilliant character actors work through perfectly tuned jokes and dialogue. It’s amazing that a film can toe the line on potentially offensive material yet stay on the right side of the fence the whole way through. That said, Brooks had already created the idea of “Springtime For Hitler,” so he was probably the man for the job.
Caddyshack (1980 D: Harold Ramis, W: Brian Doyle-Murrray, Harold Ramis, Douglas Kenney)
Now I’m just starting fights. It’s the ultimate “Classic, bro!” movie. I couldn’t imagine watching this again. I’ve heard every line from the movie quoted by drunk dudes since 1985. And consistently I see people I know, love and trust put this in their “funniest movies ever” list. Either I’m officially dead inside or I’m right. It’s not especially fun to be either in this case, but there it is.
Betty Blue (1986 D: Jean-Jacques Beineix, W: Jean-Jacques Beineix)
Growing up in a small Minnesota town in the 1980s, you had to drive 45 minutes to find anything that didn’t resemble a hockey stick, a football or a stalk of corn. My friend Chris Becker and I discovered a mutual love for movies about this time, and we would drive to Minneapolis to see whatever was playing at the Uptown Theater. This was the first movie we drove to see, and I don’t know that I’d seen a foreign film in a theater before. I remember gorgeous Beatrice Dalle in the title role, a pretty intensely graphic 7-minute-long sex scene that started the movie (Hey, 16 year old me said, I guess French movies are pretty cool!), an equally graphic violent moment late in the film, and its passionate tone wavering from emotional extreme to extreme. I also remember that pretty quickly, I didn’t even notice the subtitles anymore, and heard the dialogue in my head. I never looked at movie listings — or the small town I was from — the same way again.
Three Days of the Condor (1975 D: Sydney Pollack, W: James Grady)
The rush of mid-’70s political thrillers is one of those great eras in American moviemaking. Films like The Parallax View (pretty much the ultimate conspiracy thriller) and All The President’s Men (not unsurprisingly, both by the same director, the late Alan Pakula) are still tightly wound, suspenseful stories about corruption at the highest levels, and absolute distrust of authority. I particularly love this one, Three Days of the Condor, in which a CIA researcher (“I just read books!”) returns from lunch to find his entire office murdered, and is on the lam from — who? A terrifying Alsatian assassin, played by Max von Sydow, or the CIA, embodied by creepily unreliable Cliff Robertson. This is probably a little more Hollywood-ed up than the others, but it’s engaging, suspenseful and fun.
The Apple Dumpling Gang (1975 D: Norman Tokar, W: Don Tait)
This one is pretty easy, since it’s factual. I don’t know that I’ve seen this film in 30+ years. Bill Bixby, Tim Conway, Don Knotts, Harry Morgan and Slim Pickens star. Director Norman Tokar also did childhood torture device Where The Red Fern Grows, Disney kids comedy The Boatniks with Phil Silver and Stefanie Powers, and, just before he passed away, The Cat From Outer Space with Ken Berry, Roddy McDowall and McLean Stevenson. I’m going to guess we saw this at the Sno-King Drive-In Theater in Lynnwood, Washington. Now enjoy Tim Conway lighting Don Knotts’ ass on fire.
The Saint (1997 D: Phillip Noyce, W: Jonathan Hensleigh, Wesley Strick)
There are terrible scripts everywhere. But this one stands out because I remember feeling, as we left the theater, that the movie was literally about nothing, a piece of air. Val Kilmer dons some disguises, some actions scenes happen, there are various confused twists, there’s a Roger Moore joke, and then… it’s over. It’s as if it didn’t exist. It’s in some ways the archetype of the late 20th century Hollywood movie: it’s a remake, nothing of value is said, no one is offended, and hardly anyone remembers it. See also: The Haunting (1999), Batman and Robin (1997), Charlie’s Angels (2000), etc. etc. etc.