Several months ago, I was challenged by Gill from Realweegiemidget Reviews to discuss my top five favorite movies from 1978. As many film fans know, it was such an exceptional year for movies. The plethora of choices made it difficult to narrow down my picks – so difficult, in fact, that I decided to cheat a little and list my top eight, plus a few honorable mentions. So, without further preamble, here they are, in no particular order…
Superman: The Movie – It’s hard to top Christopher Reeve’s bravura portrayal as the Man of Steel, balancing his performance with equal measures of gravitas and “gee whiz” optimism. John Williams’ rousing score matches the scope of the lofty visuals. It’s a minor miracle that this profoundly cynical post-Watergate/Vietnam era birthed such an earnest picture, told with an abundance of heart. Superman: The Movie was just the salve that generation needed, and ours could certainly benefit from. In an era when superhero movies have become increasingly darker and grittier, current filmmakers would be wise to learn from Richard Donner’s landmark movie. No offense intended towards gritty, post-modern interpretations of beloved superheroes, but there’s room for something that purposely goes in the opposite direction.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers – 1978 was a banner year for scary movies, and one of the most terrifying of this or any year was Philip Kaufman’s paranoid remake of the exceptional 1956 film (based on Jack Finney’s novel). Donald Sutherland shines as San Francisco public health inspector Matthew Bennell, who along with his colleague Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams), suspect that not all is copacetic with the city’s residents. Kaufman’s chilling exploration of urban angst and isolation features excellent supporting performances by Leonard Nimoy as pop psychologist Dr. David Kibner, and Angela Cartwright and Jeff Goldblum as Nancy and Jack Bellicec. Who can you trust when the world’s gone to the pod people?
Patrick – This tasty slice of Ozsploitation from director (and unabashed Hitchcock disciple) Richard Franklin and writer Everett De Roche, keeps you on edge until the final scene. Susan Penhaligon plays Kathy Jacquard, a nurse assigned to monitor Patrick (Robert Thompson), a comatose patient. As Kathy soon discovers, her patient proves that still waters run deep. This little thriller (that deserves to be better known) ratchets up the tension, despite the fact the title character remains motionless for the bulk of the film. What’s Patrick’s secret? I’ll never tell.
The 36th Chamber of Shaolin – Gordon Liu stars in the role of a lifetime, as San Te. After his father is killed by a ruthless general’s henchmen, and he’s forced to flee his home, San Te is intent on revenge. He joins a Shaolin monastery, and must endure one grueling trial (“chamber”) after another on his quest to become a Kung Fu master. Each trial demands a different combination of physical and mental discipline, and with each chamber comes a new philosophical spin. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin rises above the pack, thanks to Liu’s intensity, the ingenious trials, and expert fight choreography by a cast of performers well-versed in the martial arts. They don’t get better than this, folks.
Dawn of the Dead – Ten years after his game-changing film, Night of the Living Dead, George A. Romero returned for more social commentary (this time, the spotlight is on mass consumerism). A helicopter pilot, his news anchor girlfriend, and two members of a SWAT team hole up against hordes of the undead in a huge, soulless Pennsylvania mall. Their little oasis is about to be disrupted, however, when an army of bikers (led by Tom Savini) stake their claim. Amidst the bleak story are moments of dark humor which help cushion the blow a bit. As with his previous Dead film, Romero proves to have a keen eye for observing the darker side of human nature, demonstrating there’s not as much that separates us from the zombies as we’d care to believe.
Halloween – No list of favorites from 1978 would be complete without John Carpenter’s suspenseful slasher that started it all. The years haven’t diluted Halloween’s impact, nor has it been surpassed by the myriad sequels, remakes and imitations. The simple story, with its seemingly unstoppable antagonist and reluctant hero Laurie Strode (played by then 19-year-old Jamie Lee Curtis), works due to Carpenter’s assured direction, Dean Cundey’s atmospheric cinematography, and a cast of believable, three-dimensional characters. Donald Pleasence shines as the determined Dr. Loomis, who in his own way, is as singularly minded as his escaped patient, Michael Myers.
Coma – One of the movies that scared the pants off me as an impressionable youngster still holds up remarkably well today. Writer/director Michael Crichton’s (yes, that Michael Crichton) taut adaptation of Robin Cook’s novel provides an abundance of chilling moments. This paranoid medical thriller with a science fiction twist seems all too plausible today, with its depiction of a healthcare system more interested in profits than the common good. Geneviève Bujold stars as Dr. Susan Wheeler, an upstart young doctor with a predilection toward sticking her nose where it doesn’t belong. Despite being gaslit by hospital administrator Dr. Harris (Richard Widmark) and doubted by her ladder-climbing boyfriend, Dr. Mark Bellows (Michael Douglas), she persists in her personal investigation of a series of operating room incidents. When Wheeler discovers the horrible truth behind these events, she’s running for her life, as the woman who knew too much.
The Boys from Brazil – Franklin J. Schaffner’s science fiction thriller (adapted from an Ira Levin novel) takes its loopy premise which wouldn’t seem out of place as a Weekly World News article, and milks it for all it’s worth. Under the guidance of Joseph Mengele (Gregory Peck), an army of Hitler clones are created, with the hope that one will eventually usher in the Fourth Reich as the new führer. Nazi hunter Ezra Lieberman (Laurence Olivier) becomes wise to the doctor’s evil scheme. Is it nature or nurture that decides who becomes a monster? The Boys from Brazil will make you wonder.
The Shout (1978) I only discovered this one a couple of years ago, but it’s stuck with me. Alan Bates stars as a mysterious visitor to a small English village, who wedges his way into a married couple’s lives (John Hurt and Susannah York), turning everything upside down. He brings with him a supposed Aboriginal technique (learned in the Australian Outback), with a shout that can kill. Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski (who made the equally intriguing Deep End), has created a purposely ambiguous and obtuse but endlessly engrossing film that’s unlike anything else I’ve ever seen.
National Lampoon’s Animal House – No list of 1978 favorites would be complete without director John Landis’ boisterous comedy about a bunch of misfits residing in Delta House, Faber College’s least prestigious fraternity. John Belushi (in quite possibly his finest moment) stars as the lovable oaf Bluto. The terrific cast features Tom Hulce, Karen Allen, Donald Sutherland, Stephen Furst, and John Vernon as the man you love to hate, Dean Wormer. Although some elements have not aged well (such as a misguided scene in a blues club), many of the gags have held up. Countless filmmakers have tried to copy the formula of the slobs versus the snobs, and most have failed. “May I have 10,000 marbles, please?” will never not be funny.
Piranha – It’s the Jaws rip-off that even Spielberg couldn’t ignore. Sure, Piranha is rough around the edges, and it may not be Joe Dante’s best, but it wears its B-movie sensibilities on its tattered sleeve. Its secret weapon is that it never takes itself too seriously, with ample doses of humor and over-the-top thrills. Its fun, skewed sensibilities are exemplified by this exchange alone: “What about the goddamn piranhas?” “They’re eating the guests, sir.”
Because this challenge is all about passing the baton, I’m providing some new challenges for a few of my fellow bloggers, should they choose to accept:
Gill from Realweegiemidget Reviews: Top Five Supernatural TV Movies from the 1970s or Top Five Favorite Joan Collins roles.
John from Tales from the Freakboy Zone: Review The Greasy Strangler (2016) or Sometimes Aunt Martha Does Dreadful Things (1971)
Brian from Movies from Beyond the Time Barrier: Top Five underrated/overlooked 1950s science fiction movies or Top Five underrated/overlooked 1970s science fiction TV movies