For this post we thought we’d take a broad look at some “mini-genres” that happen in movies – usually due to a big box office hit, and often an unexpected one. Hollywood loves to try and replicate success, so churning out copycat films has become a time-honored tradition, even if these films almost never are as good as the film that inspires them. In the 80s and 90s, when renting from a video store was still the thing to do on a Friday night, there was a lot of “straight-to-video” stuff where the box art would try to look just like the big hit film – with the hope that you would rent the copycat either by accident, or grudgingly in place of the other film because it was sold out. Those were good times! Anyway, here’s our look at Movie Mini-trends
Sword and Sorcery – 80s
I probably saw almost every sword and sorcery film from the 80s, my father loved renting these. It probably stemmed from the Conan films which we loved. It’s also probably the films that created this strange trend. Who was clamoring for these films? They made a ton. Most were not good. Most relied on action, some gore and some gratuitous nudity. No way could these films be made today, mostly misogynistic and dumb. Probably the best was Excalibur a gritty version of the King Arthur legend. The ones I remember most were Krull and Beastmaster. I don’t remember Krull the film but I know it had a cool throwing weapon and became a video game. Beastmaster I do remember, it had Marc Singer and Tanya Roberts. The Beastmaster had a cool sword and could talk to animals, a weird combo like a He-Man version of Dr. Doolittle. I saw plenty of bad ones too. These are the kind that make it to MSTK3000 or to the Rifftrax guys. Not sure why these were popular enough to make so many, were they cheap to make? They were all low budget no A-list stars did any outside of Excalibur. Some of them were foreign cheapos such as Ator The Fighting Eagle from Italy which spurned two sequels. One of the worst was The Sword and the Sorcerer with Lee Horsley from 80s show Matt Houston plays Prince Talon, there is a 3-blade sword and some heir issues to a crown, it’s absolutely awful. Others were Yor, Hunter of the Future, The Sorceress, The Dragonslayer, and The Barbarian Queen to name a few. The most ridiculous one is clearly Wizards of the Lost Kingdom. There is a guy named Kor the Conqueror, there is lizard people, it’s nonsense. I could include Clash of the Titans and Lou Ferrigno’s Hercules in this trend although being more influenced from the 50s mythology films. Both were slightly better but still used the formula. Titan’s at least had some good actors. This trend has not come back thank goodness or maybe it’s time.
MG: I never watched Conan in the 80’s – too much violence and boobs for my Catholic upbringing, but I did enjoy Krull, though like you I do not really remember it. When I was older I watched Excalibur, which wasn’t bad and definitely had that patented 70s grittiness to it. Overall I was not much of a lover of the fantasy genres, perhaps due to my overwhelming Star Wars fandom. In my mind, the fantasy tropes seemed silly and unbelievable, but I had no problem with the tropes of sci-fi – space travel and lasers and such. The Conan-style of fantasy is definitely different than the Lord of the Rings variety, which spawned a few copycats of its own. Maybe you could point to Game of Thrones as an example of fantasy coming back – but obviously it was much better written material and production.
Adventure Films – Copy Cat of Raiders- 80s
When Raiders of the Lost Ark came out in 1981, it was one of those type of films that had not been attempted in a long time. It was an adventure film carved out of the 50s serials. It captured the spirit of the Tarzan or The King Solomon Mines films. The Temple of Doom would also remind me of Gunga Din. It did for globe trotting adventure films what Star Wars did for space films. I loved Raiders and kept myself busy pretending the 10 year old me was Indy. It was a great film that holds up today. With its huge success came other film and TV creators trying to capitalize on it. Thus came the trend of the 80s adventure film. Most of these were not successful. The first film came out in 1983 and ironically had “almost” Indiana Jones, Tom Selleck. It was High Road to China. Selleck was a globe-trotting pirate helping Bess Armstrong find her missing father. Honestly quite boring of a film and Selleck is likable, but this is not a great film. Another stinker was King Solomon’s Mines (1985). Richard Chamberlain as adventurer Allan Quartermain also starred Sharon Stone doing her best Kate Capshaw. Although a remake of a far superior 1950’s film, it takes the Indy look and feel without a good film attached. I do like the tag line, “Deep in the jungles of Africa, in a cave of death..” Exact place this film should end up. The best of this trend is 1984’s Romancing the Stone. I loved this film. Not that I am a huge Michael Douglas fan but this had a more comedic edge. They also made the Katherine Turner’s female character a strong match for the adventurer Douglas. The sequel Jewel of the Nile was not as good. It was hard to match the original so the trend pretty much died until The Mummy of the 90s came out and then the National Treasure movies also had that spirit. The biggest copycat was actually on TV and came out in 1982. It was The Tales of the Gold Monkey. I loved this show. This also takes place in the 1930s and starred Stephen Collins as bush pilot adventurer Jake Cutter, he had a monkey, there was a side kick, and of course a girl. It was actually decent but could only last 2 seasons. At the same time there was one season of Bring ‘Em Back Alive about 1930’s adventurer Frank Buck starring Bruce Boxleitner. Which again wasn’t terrible. This is what made Raiders so good is that this type of film is so hard to do well.
MG: Another blatant Raiders rip-off is Treasure of the Four Crowns (in 3-D no less!) that came out in 1983. I loved Raiders and Temple of Doom as a kid. I actually saw Raiders in the theater last year when it was part of the pandemic releases, and it does still hold up well 40 years later. Because I liked it so much, I was easily drawn in to the copycat stuff- having seen most of what you mentioned above. I have no recollection of King Solomon’s Mine, even though I saw it, but I am fond of Romancing The Stone. As you said, it’s sequel was awful and I don’t remember anything from it, other than Billy Ocean’s “When The Going Gets Tough..” song and movie tie-in video.
Found Footage Films – The Blair Witch Project 90s-00s
When The Blair Witch Project came out it was a huge weird little film. What if we were filming something and our camera was found by someone else. We the audience were that someone else. It was a neat gimmick. It had no actual stars in it, it was low budget yet through word of mouth it hit the big time. I still sometimes say “I’m so scared”. Really there wasn’t much to the movie but to me, at the time, it was scary and innovative, I loved it. But to me, it was a one time thing, seeing the movie again didn’t happen, and I certainly didn’t see the sequel. It did set off filmmakers trying to recreate the same thing, cheap movies, could bring a nice cash flow. I think the biggest ‘found footage film” franchise would have to be Paranormal Activity, I think they may have made 7 of them. In this it’s found footage of ghosts doing something to people. There are ones about aliens – Area 51. Rec (2006) was about Zombies and used a technique by shooting chronological and giving the actors their lines that day. Trollhunter (2010) the Norwegian film about exactly what the title says hunting trolls was a very popular addition to the genre. Most “found footage films” tend to try to be scary, about a witch, a troll, an alien, a ghost. Cloverfield (2008) is often credited with the found footage trend and also has a monster in it. The Blair Witch Project also spurned a 2016 film called Blair Witch. They are still making these films, probably making modest cash. I am not a huge fan and honestly haven’t seen many. While researching I did come across maybe the first “found footage film” the 1980 cult classic Cannibal Holocaust which finds anthropologists not mixing well with the native people. That one I may check out if the kids aren’t around.
MG: This mini-trend is one that the younger generations will look at and say “WTF?”, but it was a legit phenomenon at the time. I remember we even got caught-up in it – making a parody of Blair Witch when we were hanging out with friends and a camcorder during a weekend in the White Mountains. I also never saw the sequel and can’t imaging spending time watching Blair Witch again. I enjoyed the film in the theater when I saw it, but overall the shaky camera/found footage stuff was not for me. In some ways you could draw a line from “Blair Witch” through not only similar films, but the explosion of reality TV and even our current love for self-made content on places like YouTube and TikTok. Hollywood, TV networks, and now streaming sites being able to make profitable content without paying famous actors’ salaries remains an attractive business model. .
The Vietnam Drama – Platoon (1986)
It’s tempting to say that Hollywood avoided taking an honest view of the Vietnam War until Platoon came along, but there were several high-profile dramas in the 70s – namely Apocalypse Now, Coming Home, and The Deer Hunter. As good as these films were, they did not capture the soldier’s point of view and each was more a commentary about the damage the war inflicted on the human condition. Starting in the 80s, Hollywood was mostly interested in re-fighting the war via POW films, where the US won this time. Then Platoon came along and changed the narrative completely. Written and directed by Oliver Stone, who had himself served in the war, it was a gritty, grunts-eye view of jungle combat, and it would change the way we looked at war films. The critical and box office success of Platoon would spawn a number of similar-themed movies, which ran the gamut from good to disposable, until Hollywood went through the same cycle but switched the war from Vietnam to World War II. One of the first Vietnam War films post-Platoon was Hamburger Hill in 1987. It sought to portray the same combat realism, with all its mud and blood, but was closer to a battle recreation and lacked the same characters and compelling storyline of Platoon. Also in that year, Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket was released – a brilliant film but far more esoteric and less specific to Vietnam (with its combat scenes mostly in the city, it could almost substitute for any war). Casualties of War in 1989 was another attempt at mining that same realism of Platoon, but it was probably a mistake to cast Michael J. Fox in this, even though I think he tried his best. Some other films in the late 80s and 90s were: Bat 21, 84C MoPic, Platoon Leader, The Iron Triangle, even Good Morning Vietnam. There was even a TV show called Tour of Duty, which ran on CBS from 1987 – 1990.
DJ: Wasn’t the show China Beach also set in Vietnam? What is 84C, Platoon Leader and The Iron Triangle? I loved all those Vietnam movies and I agree 100% that Platoon catapulted the industry to focus on reality and get away from The Green Berets style of storytelling. You failed to mention, and I know you know this, I will bring it up every time, The Boys in Company C from 1978 was really the first, it just didn’t get the actors or the cache of Platoon. It’s a great film that I always wish got more recognition.
The 3D Craze of the 2000s – Avatar (2009)
Is it just me, or is it nutty that something that came out in 2009 seems so long ago? No one expected Avatar to become the phenomenon it did, and most critics already had their knives out and were predicting a notorious cinematic disaster (didn’t these people learn anything from James Cameron and Titanic – when they predicted the same thing?). Not only was the film itself a massive box office hit, everyone kept talking about the 3D experience, particularly with IMAX, and that drove a lot of repeat viewings at the theater. I vividly remember seeing Avatar for the first time in 3D IMAX, and it was truly a stunning film watching experience I will always remember. So after Avatar’s runaway success was established, every studio wanted to release their films in 3D (and add a nice little upcharge for it to pad their bottom line). In 2010 two of the most prominent 3D releases were Alice in Wonderland and Clash of the Titans, which saw a good percentage of sales with the more expensive 3D ticket. However, just like the 3D fads of the 50s and the 80s, it created a short period of excitement, only to flame out. At the high point, there were 47 3D films released in 2011, from that point it dropped off quickly and before we knew it, 3D films were gone. The problem was that most studios were “converting” non-3D to 3D, vs. what Cameron did where he filmed Avatar using special 3D cameras. So nothing matched the 3D experience of Avatar, and also many films did not have the visuals to maximize 3D effects. I remember when Lucasfilm announced they would be releasing all six Star Wars films in the theaters in 3D format. Well, they never got past The Phantom Menace, which I unfortunately sat through with my young son and got a headache from watching (hard to know if that was from the 3D glasses or Jar Jar Binks). I can confidently say 3D did not improve Phantom Menace. So much for all the suckers who paid more money for a TV with 3D capability. It will be interesting to see if the new Avatar films, whenever they finally are released, are widely distributed in 3D and whether they might stoke another comeback in the format.
DJ: I loved the concept of 3D, in the 80’s it was the blue and red glasses and films like Jaws-3D. But the effects were never great. I was very skeptical when Avatar came out but it did wow me. The problem of course every film had to then go use it. Either the film was not shot in 3D or the film itself made sure to do things against the plot to show off the effects. The conversion of Phantom Menace was just stupid. I think I saw an animated film in 3D maybe one of the Ice Age’s. It hurt my head. I remember my dad buying a 3D TV but then literally never watching anything in 3D. I am glad this trend is gone.
Reimagining The Native American Experience – Dances With Wolves (1990)
Some have credited Dances With Wolves with revitalizing the Western genre, but that was really done by The Unforgiven in 1992. What Kevin Costner (star and director) did with Dances With Wolves was touch off a national dialogue and pop culture trend of looking at the Native American experience from a more realistic and authentic perspective – and not from the usual two-dimensional view of most prior films and TV. Sure, there are some critics, probably more now than at the time, who will say this is another “white man savior” film and point out various historical inaccuracies, but prior to this coming out, the typical white American was still using the term “Indians” and thinking of them as the bad guys or “savages” that raped and killed the European settlers of the nation. This film made people realize that the native tribes had a meaningful and complex culture and society that was trampled by greedy and unjust westward expansion in the 1800s and beyond. It was a notable storytelling accomplishment merely to portray native people as three-dimensional characters, and not some caricature from old Western films/TV. It opened the door for subsequent films that would attempt to provide a more historically accurate and sympathetic take on the experiences of Native peoples, including Last of the Mohicans (1992), Thunderheart (1992), Incident at Oglala (1992) Geronimo (1993) and a number of documentaries and made-for TV films. The cable network TNT even had a “Native American initiative” around 1993 where they created several movies and documentaries for their network. I don’t think this national interest ever rose to a “movement” level, but I remember personally taking a lot of time to research films, books and first-hand accounts of what happened to the Native American tribes and how they suffered under white colonization, and it totally changed my perspective. It even led to DJ and I driving down to Washington DC to participate in a march to raise awareness of the plight of native peoples and also advocate to free wrongfully imprisoned Native American Leonard Peltier (who unfortunately still rots in a US jail despite years of appeals and requests to pardon him – even from The Pope). Like all fads, it faded after a few years, but I do think it had a lasting and positive effect on how some Americans view Native American culture and a shared understanding of how wrong they were treated, although I don’t think that has translated to a better experience for the surviving Native Americans that still live in this country.
DJ: I guess it was a nice try but the indigenous populations are still treated poorly. It’s a disgrace. I really don’t get why either. That should have been a trend – white savior films – but there are so many. I like Dances With Wolves and the films you mentioned. Thunderheart and Incident at Oglala are basically the same story just one is fictionalized. Politically Joe Biden nominating a Native American to Secretary of the Interior should help further their cause. It doesn’t appear pop culture ever will. Ken Burns should maybe focus a documentary on them and do to the American Indian what he did for Jazz and Vietnam.