Mighty oaks often grow from little acorns, and when the slick little sci-fi thriller The Terminator opened one quiet October Friday, no one thought much of it. Its director had helmed only one project before — the less-than-immortal Piranha 2: the Spawning — and the star was that jumped-up Austrian from Conan the Barbarian who looked like his 15 minutes was just about up. The film was made on a shoestring budget and did okay during its initial release. But like so many movies of the era, it found its audience on VHS, and today is… well, it’s The Terminator. Director and star both went on to bestride the Earth like colossi, and while their influence may have diminished, the film that launched them into the stratosphere looks better than ever. It opened today in 1984.
Audrey Hepburn was already a big star when she appeared as the world’s champion blind lady in Terence Young’s Wait Until Dark. The film bears the hallmarks of canned theater, but in the director’s hands it becomes an exquisite thriller, helped not only by Hepburn, but by Alan Arkin as the sinister hitman stalking her. It opened today in 1967
Robert Duvall notched another winner to his belt with The Great Santini, the story of a fighter pilot whose no-nonsense approach to life runs into a brick wall when it comes to the disposition of his children. The film itself exists mainly as a showcase for the actor, but few are more deserving of such attention. The Great Santini opened today in 1979.
Before winning an Oscar for Best Director — the first woman to do so — Kathryn Bigelow undertook an ambitious attempt to redefine the vampire genre. It entailed a clan of feral wanderers (played by most of the supporting cast of Aliens, including the late great Bill Paxton) traveling across America’s forgotten highways in search of blood and pulling a hapless country boy (Adrian Pasdar) into their embrace in the process. It was audacious, bold and wildly original, and while it didn’t catch fire at the box office (The Lost Boys seemed to have a lock on the public’s imagination at the time), it has since attained cult status among horror aficionados everywhere. I’ll go further and call it the greatest vampire movie ever made. It was Near Dark and it opened 30 years ago today in 1987.
Further down the scale, we find a minor-but-notable effort from Don Siegal: Coogan’s Bluff, starring Clint Eastwood as an Arizona sheriff sent to New York to extradite a suspect for murder. The fish-out-of-water vibe is middling at best, though Eastwood makes an appealing hero as normal. It opened today in 1968.
Our big movie today is Das Boot, Wolfgang Petersen’s incredible WW II epic that not only has us rooting for the Germans, but delivers what is unquestionably the greatest submarine movie of all time. It opened in the U.S. today in 1982, and if you haven’t seen it yet, get thee to the nearest convenient distribution platform posthaste!
Sam Raimi was still working to shed his image as a horror filmmaker when he delivered The Quick and the Dead, a fabulously ridiculous ode to spaghetti westerns that opened today in 1995. Besides the director’s inspired over-the-top visual style, it features a full ammo belt of great actors having the time of their lives. Sharon Stone, fresh off of Basic Instinct, justifies all the attention she was getting for perhaps the only time in her career, while her nemesis Gene Hackman just revels in the sheer nastiness of his sinister gunfighter. He’s joined by the likes of Leonardo Di Caprio and Russell Crowe — both relative unknowns on their way up at the time — as well as veteran character actors Keith David, Lance Henriksen and Gary Sinese. We’re even willing to forgive it its ruthless cribbing of Once Upon a Time in the West. It’s simply having too much fun to care…. and it even manages to slip a little girl power into the equation too.
If you need some John Wayne in your life, today had it, with the release of Mark Rydell’s The Cowboys in 1972. As late-era Wayne goes, it’s hard to top… and Bruce Dern is still living down what his character did to the Duke in this movie.
On a completely different note, visual effects maestro Stan Winston made a rare stint as director with Pumpkinhead, released today in 1989. It’s standard horror fare in a lot of ways, but the monster is top-notch thanks to Winston and his brilliant team, while the great Lance Henriksen provides us with a suitably tormented protagonist.
And while we’re on the horror kick, we might as well go old school: Son of Frankenstein hit theaters today in 1939, featuring Boris Karloff’s final turn as the Monster that made him famous and Bela Lugosi as the good doctor’s sinister assistant.
Are we gonna mention Demon Knight? Yeah, we’re gonna. Demon Knight. Un film du Tales from the Crypt. Jada Pinkett-Smith. A pair of Bills (Zane and Sadler). Released today in 1995. We hate that we love it so much, but we do. We really, really do.