In 2010-11, I wrote a series of articles for the magazine Paracinema. They only ever appeared in the publication’s print edition, so now that several years have passed I’ve finally opted to publish them online. I’ve only made minor tweaks for the sake of formatting, which means that the versions below preserve my often questionable prose and ideas, but I wanted to have a digital record of these pieces available.
Tell Your Children:
Dwain Esper’s Sex Madness and the Aesthetics of Exploitation
[Originally published in Paracinema #10, Oct. 2010]
Between the end of World War I and the late 1950s, Hollywood had a dark secret. A sordid industry thrived in its shadow, unaffiliated with any major studio, less respectable even than the hacks of Poverty Row. Working on the cheap, auteurs of sleaze would churn out ostensibly educational films and crisscross the nation giving roadshow presentations, often restricting their audiences to men over 18. They were the purveyors of exploitation films.
In his book Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!: A History of Exploitation Films, 1919-1959, Eric Schaefer designates five criteria that define the classical exploitation film: 1) it dealt with controversial subjects, frequently ones forbidden by the Production Code; 2) it was produced with an extremely low budget compared to its mainstream contemporaries (Schaefer cites Kroger Babb’s Mom and Dad as relatively expensive, having cost $65,000); 3) it was distributed independently, 4) in theaters not owned by major studios, and 5) with very few prints being distributed simultaneously. While these points emphasize similar distribution practices, most exploitation films also had a set of eccentric stylistic tendencies in common, and it’s with these cinematic tics that this article is concerned.
Exploitation films, after all, had a dual purpose: they were engineered to draw crowds and make money, but in order to assuage the outrage of censor boards and moral authorities, they needed to teach a lesson. The basic outcome of this conflict was that the films would loudly propose to educate their audiences about a topic (usually sex or drugs) while covertly titillating them with gratuitous footage of those same forbidden dangers. This tension alone prevented exploitation films from delivering a consistent message, but when aggravated by a lack of professional acting or technical expertise, it yielded a final product that was near-impossible to follow.
Such is the case with Sex Madness, which was directed by Dwain Esper in 1938, although details are sketchy. (The film is also known as They Must Be Told and Human Wreckage, but since many exploitation films were redistributed years later as if they were brand new, three names for one film is pretty standard.) Esper was, if nothing else, an audacious showman and a resourceful filmmaker. By rebranding Tod Browning’s Freaks with the title Forbidden Love, he gave it a new theatrical life; he also wrote and directed a number of exploitation classics like Narcotic and Marihuana alongside his wife and screenwriting partner Hildegarde Stadie Esper. Although Sex Madness lacks the mile-a-minute frenzy of Esper’s earlier film Maniac or the cult status of something like Reefer Madness, it’s nonetheless a textbook example of the ideological tensions and stylistic idiosyncrasies that defined classical exploitation.
As you can guess, Sex Madness falls into the exploitation subgenre of the sex hygiene film. It’s about an innocent small-town girl, Millicent, who acquires a bad case of syphilis after a trip to New York. Desperate to be cured, she falls under the spell of a quack who claims to rid her of the dread disease, but after marrying her sweetheart Wendel and having a child, she learns that the syphilis was still there all along… and that it has ravaged her family. The film ends with a head-scratching deus ex machina when a last-minute phone call from a friend prevents Millicent from committing suicide, and she decides that, although her syphilis has killed her baby and blinded her husband, they can still be happy.
You may not think that this paper-thin story could fill 50 minutes, and it can’t. In fact, Millicent and Wendel’s melodramatic battle with syphilis—ostensibly the main storyline—takes up about half of that scant running time. The remainder of the film is riddled with meandering subplots about the philanthropist Paul Lorenz, his wayward son Tom, the crusading Dr. Hampton, and a host of other minor characters, all loosely linked under the broad thematic heading of “sex madness.” The formal strictures (or lack thereof) unique to exploitation allow the film to leap tangentially from one sensational story to another, resulting in a series of riffs on sex hygiene rather than a traditional filmic narrative.
In exploitation films, as Schaefer observes, “issues of continuity, narrative, and logic were a secondary concern,” especially in relation to their real raison d’etre, spectacle. In Sex Madness, this takes many forms, most explicitly in a burlesque show, complete with reaction shots of lecherous patrons; in a castanet-wielding dancer who serves as the backdrop for a seduction; and in a grotesque montage of syphilis patients’ scabby arms and legs. Each of these spectacles is somehow incorporated into the film’s narrative flow—e.g., Millicent works in the burlesque show, and several other characters discuss it at length—yet they also interrupt the story and its sermonizing long enough to deliver the titillation promised by the title (and, most likely, the advertising).
Nonetheless, Esper was not content with these occasional chunks of what Schaefer dubs “integrated” spectacle, a few of which came standard with just about any exploitation film. (In fact, Schaefer devotes a whole chapter to the “burlesque film,” which did away with the story altogether.) In Sex Madness, this urge toward spectacle dominates much of the early action, and consequently the first act feels severely disjointed; after the burlesque show, for example, the camera migrates first backstage, where we’re witness to the dancers’ dressing room chatter, then outside the theater, as a horny couple sign into a hotel. In another brief scene, a long-faced loner shown earlier in the burlesque hall watches a girl carrying groceries, after which a newspaper headline appears: “Sex Criminal Jailed After Baby Murder!” The effect is so disorienting that it feels as if the editing pattern had been cribbed from Un Chien Andalou.
But by far the film’s most intriguingly taboo scene comes just before the burlesque show, as two secretaries sit in an office, discussing a newspaper story about a stripper’s legal woes. When one of them remarks, “I wish I could [strip] instead of slaving in this office,” the other rushes up to her while crying, “I’ll bet you could!” and begins massaging her back. She then adds, “You do have plenty of ‘It’.” While the first secretary does a pantomime striptease, the other gazes on in unmistakable lust. And, as if to confirm any uncertain first impressions, they’re later shown at the burlesque show, with the aroused secretary fondling the other and asking, “You’ll stay at my place tonight, won’t you?” Embedded in this cheap, run-of-the-mill exploitation film is an early and startlingly straightforward representation of a lesbian relationship.
This scene is surprising on a number of levels. Most obviously, there’s the fact that it’s even there. Homosexuality had been categorized as “sex perversion” and declared verboten by the Production Code, which by 1938 held sway over American filmmaking. Thus, the scene’s very existence is a testament to exploitation’s marginal status within the industry, and the added moral leeway this gave the exploiteers. Since films like Sex Madness were produced and distributed on the border of legitimacy, and were often released without the Hays Office’s seal of approval, it was in their makers’ financial best interest to add in as much forbidden allure as possible.
What’s even more unusual about this scene, though, is that it doesn’t follow the same traditional “titillation, then punishment” trajectory as Millicent’s storyline, or the vast majority of exploitation films. Instead, the lesbian couple is viewed nonjudgmentally, and they disappear completely after the burlesque show with no repercussions in sight; their story doesn’t extend beyond “titillation.” This totally neutral portrayal is a distant outlier in the history of Hollywood cinema. As Vito Russo wrote in The Celluloid Closet, with reference to the 1950s, “in each film the myth of the predatory but lonely lesbian was reinforced.” While Sex Madness does feature a lesbian seductress, she’s hardly “predatory but lonely,” and her desire is reciprocated during her last few moments onscreen.
This weirdly progressive anomaly points toward an often overlooked complexity of exploitation cinema. While the casual Reefer Madness viewer may dismiss all of its brethren as similarly hysterical, puritanical cautionary tales, in fact they’re ideologically compromised. Just as the ordinary trappings of narrative cinema, taken for granted in any major studio production, are set aside to make room for bursts of spectacle, so are the yokes of moral responsibility with which these “educational” films are supposedly saddled. So instead of being single-minded, moralizing tracts, exploitation films end up implicitly contradicting themselves, as when Sex Madness’s alleged message of “sex is dangerous” is undermined by many of its subplots.
While these internal self-contradictions may exist within many higher-profile films from studio era Hollywood (especially melodramas), they’re made more visible by conditions specific to exploitation—e.g., the stilted acting, shoddy editing, and quick shooting schedules. Instead of manifesting themselves merely in the occasional narrative hiccup, they distort the whole fabric of the film; Sex Madness’s splintered, borderline-incoherent structure is an extreme example. Although many of these distortions were a function of the audience’s desire for spectacle, they also turned exploitation films into social barometers, tracing out the limits of what was permissible on the fringes of popular culture.
Exploitation films express these social polarities so effectively, then, not despite their poor workmanship and pariah status within the film industry, but because of them. And despite being neglected by conventional film histories, they often speak volumes through counterexample about the practices of the major studios. Sex Madness, with its routine story surrounded by bizarre, branching subplots, is an especially revelatory example of the form.
No Future for You:
Punk Aesthetics and British Identity in Derek Jarman’s Jubilee
[Originally published in Paracinema #12, June 2011.]
“History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” —Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses
In his autobiography Dancing Ledge, Derek Jarman wrote of 1977’s Jubilee that “a bitter chill blows through the film.” He was right, but only to a certain extent; its vision of a hellish, post-apocalyptic London certainly is downbeat, but it’s also stylistically audacious and brimming with infectious punk energy. Jubilee is the stuff that cult hits are made of. It’s visually distinctive, all glitter, graffiti, and face paint. It’s transgressive, with scene after scene of casual nudity and nonchalant murder. It’s got over-the-top performances, Pop Art set pieces, time travel, terrorism, and more.
In fact, all it really lacks is a substantial cult following. Which is odd, given all of Jubilee’s resemblances to The Rocky Horror Picture Show: they’re both sexually daring rock musicals produced in England in the mid-’70s, and they even have two cast members (Richard O’Brien and “Little” Nell Campbell) in common. Jubilee’s limited audience is probably a consequence of Jarman’s brilliant but inaccessibly avant-garde style, which privileges ambient noise, elliptical narratives, and meandering monologues over being coherent or comprehensible. His first feature was the all-Latin Sebastiane (1976); his last was Blue (1993), which consists of a solid blue screen accompanied by narration and music. His films are primarily radical biographies and literary adaptations with a queer slant, stories rooted in history but nonetheless very much about being gay in the age of AIDS.
When grouped with the rest of Jarman’s quieter, less urgently of-the-moment films, Jubilee may look like an outlier, but it shares with them a penchant for blending shocking imagery with intellectual inquiry. While Rocky Horror is all campy surface and raunchy farce, Jubilee sinks its teeth into dense material like British heritage, fascism, and the role of artists in a capitalist society. It has shades of the later Mad Max series in its vicious girl gangs and industrial wastelands, but it has even more in common with Jean-Luc Godard’s Week End, another film that constructs a dystopian world with minimal budget or special effects in order to savagely satirize the politics of the present. Like Godard (who was one of his major influences), Jarman melds science fiction spectacle with his heady, experimental style, leading to results that are simultaneously bizarre, fascinating, and massively entertaining.
Jubilee’s opening is unique among post-apocalyptic sci-fi movies, as it’s set in the 16th century at the court of Queen Elizabeth I. There, real-life alchemist and advisor John Dee (played by Rocky Horror creator Richard O’Brien) summons the sprite Ariel—he of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, decked out in black spandex and black contact lenses—who transports Dee, his queen, and her dwarf lady-in-waiting into a vision of the future. The film enters this brave new world through a jarring cut to a trash heap and a cloud of black smoke, then surveys the desolate streets of London.
We get fleeting sensory impressions: a burning pram, the sound of a machine gun, a bloody car crash, the word “POSTMODERN” scrawled on a wall. Much of Jubilee’s world is built up in this piecemeal fashion, as a series of gory, nihilistic tableaux and catchphrases scored by the distant clatter of destruction. With the spin of a desecrated globe, we’re introduced to Mad (Toyah Willcox), a butchy, orange-haired spitfire who harangues an audience about the disappearance of heroes, and Amyl Nitrite (punk icon Jordan), two friends who live together in a rambunctious commune.
Wearing a schoolmarm-ish pink sweater, a string of pearls, and a pink streak across her face, Amyl delivers a lecture on history laced with references to Rocky Horror and serial killer Myra Hindley. She mentions that “on [her] fifteenth birthday, law and order were finally abolished,” and this is the closest we come to any real explanation for England’s current state. Jarman has no interest in scapegoats like peak oil or nuclear war; his urban nightmare is merely the logical endpoint of Cold War society, with all its outdated values, sterilized pop culture, and festering hypocrisy.
The women of Jubilee have no use for the life goals or sexual mores of their parents’ generation. They don’t want to learn an honest trade or serve their country. For them, western culture is like T.S. Eliot’s “heap of broken images,” existing only to be scavenged, appropriated, and mixed willy-nilly. Quotes, photos, and posters, new and old, line the walls of their compound, transforming their living space into a collage. The regal Bod (Jenny Runacre, who also plays the queen), the gang’s informal leader, brings home a jewel-studded crown and declares, “I’m going to make it into a crash helmet. That’d give it some use.” Yesterday’s trinkets won’t suffice in this anomie-plagued world.
Meanwhile, Queen Elizabeth I continues traversing this hostile netherworld with her entourage, never quite grasping how radical a change her former kingdom has undergone. Royalty is out, and the new symbol of power is media mogul Borgia Ginz. As played by the large, bald, and blind actor Orlando, he’s like Phil Spector, Rupert Murdoch, and Howard Hughes all in one manic package. Between bites of live goldfish and scenery, he serves up some of the film’s juiciest, most grandiose dialogue. “It’s power, babe,” he tells Bod. “Power! I don’t create it; I own it.”
In a world as corrupt and chaotic as Jubilee’s, Ginz’s histrionic babbling and falsetto cackles make him the paragon of sanity. Orlando overplays him to perfection as the only character who understands this ruined world well enough to manipulate it. As he remarks with Mephistophelean glee at the end of the film, when every surviving major character in in his employ, “They all sign up in the end, one way or another.” Ginz is the only establishment left, co-opting youthful revolt for his own profit; he has converted a cathedral into a garish nightclub, Buckingham Palace into his own recording studio.
However, this isn’t to say that Jarman mourns the decline of religion or government. Both are represented in Jubilee as bourgeois relics of a bygone era, an attitude best summed up in the film’s most striking, memorable sequence: the performance of “Rule, Brittania!” During Bod’s first visit to Ginz’s music factory, she witnesses Amyl Nitrite doing a fan dance while lip-synching to Suzi Pinns’ irreverent punk rearrangement of the great imperialist anthem. (Later in the film, Pinns provides a similarly cheeky take on the national hymn “Jerusalem.”) Surrounded by smoke and mirrors, Amyl wears a British flag, a Roman helmet, and green fishnet stockings while wielding a phallic trident.
The sequence is a feat of iconographic legerdemain, conflating the patriotic with the sexual, and it grows even more outrageous when “Rule, Brittania!” is punctuated by soccer chants, a clip of Hitler belting the word “Deutschland!” (with Amyl goose-stepping along), and the buzz of falling bombs. Under Borgia Ginz’s supervision, all these historical fragments—whether reminders of England’s colonial triumphs or the oratory of Der Führer—are drained of context, stirred together, and reduced to slick, sexy mass entertainment. As Ginz wryly comments, “As long as the music’s loud enough, we won’t hear the world falling apart!”
Through satirical jabs like this, Jarman critiques middle-of-the-road artists who play along with the status quo. It’s this same dysfunctional, oppressive status quo—unabashedly celebrated nationwide during Elizabeth II’s 1977 Silver Jubilee, from which the film’s title is taken—that makes up his primary target. Mad, Bod, and the others express their frustration with it through random, nasty acts of violence: against a waitress, against a police officer, in a Clockwork Orange-style home invasion against the androgynous, Ginz-endorsed pop star Lounge Lizard.
As Jarman writes in Dancing Ledge, however, “[Jubilee’s] violence was unglamorized, quite real and seen negatively—not like the balletic celebration of violence in A Clockwork Orange at all.” Destruction isn’t a solution in Jubilee; it’s just a way to vent and, ultimately, a dead end. The film does offer one utopian alternative through the incestuous brothers Sphinx and Angel and their mutual paramour Viv, frequently seen naked in bed together discussing poetry and philosophy. But a sudden, heartbreaking incident of police brutality brings this dream to an end.
This is the “bitter chill” that Jarman was talking about: even though Jubilee is teeming with enthusiasm and adolescent transgression, even though its angry punks kill cops, deface public property, and have constant, unapologetic sex, their rebellion leads not to anarchic delight, but to grief. As the Sex Pistols sang, “there is no future in England’s dreaming,” but neither is there any real, sustainable future in punk. In its mix of rage and despair, Jubilee is a snapshot of a cultural movement perpetually teetering on the brink of nihilism, and one of the few true “punk films.”
In its shaggy style, it also feels like a slice of post-apocalyptic life, a speculative pseudo-documentary. It’s at once stilted art film, replete with ponderous speeches in Elizabethan English, and a quotable piece of musical exploitation that’s just as fun as it is flawed. Blunt and politically aggressive, Jubilee transmutes its historical moment into a darkly compelling vision of the future.
Dreams That You Could Never Guess:
Bela Lugosi on Poverty Row, 1940-42
[Originally published in Paracinema #13, Sept. 2011.]
Sometimes I watch public domain movies starring Bela Lugosi, and I marvel over his power. He speaks in that thick Hungarian accent. He does that thing with his eyebrows where he arches them intently, and suddenly his eyes become the focal point of the frame. Where did he get his mystique, his horror magic? Did he import it from Hungary, from his hometown of Lugos, like so much native soil packed into coffins? I know he plays a creep, I know he’s a monster, but I can’t help loving him. He seduces me. He won’t let me go. Why is he so irresistible? Why am I drawn back to his film appearances, as if he was beckoning me hypnotically across time and space?
It’s tough to wrestle with a legacy as colossal as Lugosi’s: you’re face to face with eighty years of built-up fandom, with issue after issue of Famous Monsters of Filmland, with millions of Dracula prints and posters and postcards. (Lugosi must have the most reproduced face outside of the Mona Lisa.) How do you get to the core of a man who’s a household name, whose image is a staple of animated Halloween specials? You must go back to the movies. Lugosi’s filmography is intimidatingly broad and eclectic: between his triumphs of the early ’30s and his late-career collaborations with Ed Wood, he worked nonstop, shuffling through every layer of the Hollywood economy. So I arbitrarily sliced off a chunk of his career for further examination, a cross-section of films made for Poverty Row studios Monogram and PRC in the years 1940-42. They’re cheap, unambitious movies with stilted dialogue and shoddy production values, but they’re also great showcases for Lugosi since they’re crafted around his star persona. They’re structured around his eyes, his voice, and his aptitude for charming evil.
Consider PRC’s The Devil Bat (1940). If that title gives you an impression of cluttered laboratories and hokey killer bats, you’re dead on. Lugosi stars as Dr. Paul Carruthers, a perfume inventor who feels inadequately compensated for his work and, naturally, plots revenge against the family that hired him. This sounds like it could be the set-up for any generic mad scientist movie, but Lugosi’s performance transcends its low-budget context. As Carruthers, he’s not just a cackling, cartoonish villain; he’s also a wounded, lonely soul. As he paces his lab, he rants to himself with real pain in his voice, decrying the ignorance and ingratitude of his enemies. When his boss describes him as an impractical “dreamer,” Carruthers offers this retort: “So you try to pay me in flattery, telling me that I am a dreamer. Well, I do dream. Dreams that you could never guess!”
That last phrase is so clumsily poignant, as Dr. Carruthers knows that he’s speaking to his intellectual inferior, that his visions are beyond comprehension for a minor character in a bad horror movie, yet he’s still in this man’s service. Lugosi’s tone bespeaks both a smoldering anger and a deep vulnerability. This vulnerability is really the underlying key to the whole Lugosi persona: even as his characters scheme to kill and kill again, they never appear indestructible. Mixed in with his malice and power is always an element of aristocratic frailty, one that’s especially pronounced when he’s surrounded by red-blooded American men like Dave “Tex” O’Brien, his nemesis in The Devil Bat. Remember: in the early ’40s, Lugosi was approaching the age of 60. Two full decades had passed since his traumatic service for Austro-Hungary in World War I. Is it any wonder that he looks a little weak and tired?
“Weak and tired” just about sums up Lugosi’s performance in the Monogram murder mystery Invisible Ghost (1941). Directed by Joseph H. Lewis, later renowned for the erotic film noir Gun Crazy (1950), Invisible Ghost’s title is a bizarre misnomer, as the film doesn’t deal with invisibility, ghosts, or anything even remotely supernatural. Instead, it’s a somber study in grief-induced psychosis. The plot is baroque to the point of nonsense: Lugosi plays Charles Kessler, an old man who believes his wife eloped with a romantic rival years earlier; unbeknownst to him, however, she’s an amnesiac being kept in a nearby shed by his butler. Whenever she sneaks out, Kessler spots her through a window, and he’s promptly driven to kill—which he does again and again, thinning the ranks of his poor servants and immediately forgetting his violent actions.
It’s a very strange, melodramatic movie and, in my opinion, essential viewing for any Lugosi fan. Yet his performance doesn’t quite ring true, because half the time, he’s playing a benevolent codger with no memory of suffocating his chauffeur, maid, butler, etc. When he’s in the midst of his homicidal fugues, he’s sufficiently menacing, and once he learns what he’s done, his paralyzed remorse is heartbreaking. But in Lugosi’s best performances (Dracula included), his evil is tempered with pathos, and vice versa. Behind his characters’ masks of smug elegance, we can detect fear, whether of loss, failure, rejection, or death. The problem with Invisible Ghost is that his performance is split too cleanly into two halves, good and evil. Lugosi thrives on deception.
The best proof of this might be Monogram’s equally convoluted Bowery at Midnight. It has Lugosi leading a triple life as a psychology professor by day, a philanthropist running a soup kitchen by night, and a murderous jewel thief even later at night. This entails a series of complex facades, as he systematically lies to his students, his wife, and his accomplices. But he doesn’t appear put off by these charades—rather, he seems to relish the playacting. “I’d be happy to cooperate with the police,” he claims while sheltering an escaped convict, and the line delivery is a layered thing of beauty: unctuous and obliging on the surface, but laced with subtle contempt. If the policeman had a perceptive bone in his body, he could detect Lugosi’s hatred, but again, he’s just a minor character in a bad movie. Like so many others, he’s completely taken in by Lugosi’s feigned politeness.
Perhaps the best word for Lugosi’s manner is “supercilious.” Not only does its meaning fit him to a tee—haughty, arrogant, scornful—but it’s derived from the Latin for “raised eyebrows,” a physical trait of which Lugosi was the master. With his eyebrows, Lugosi could speak a secret language. Their supreme eloquence compensated for any failings he had with English. He could use them to vent his frustration with the imbeciles around him, or exercise his strange, seductive power. In the espionage thriller Black Dragons (1942), a woman says of Lugosi’s sinister Monsieur Colomb, “Handsome devil, isn’t he?” and her companion, an FBI agent, fires back, “Yeah, I’d hate to meet him in a dark alley!” But the woman isn’t put off. “Oh, I don’t know,” she continues. “Make it a moonlight night on a park bench… might be exciting!” Handsome, scary, and “exciting”: that’s Lugosi’s appeal in a nutshell.
Lugosi’s characters may be oily, unrepentant killers, but at least they’re “exciting” and different. At least they can dream beyond the banal realities of the bourgeois parasites and slow-witted investigators who surround them. They can mastermind intricate revenge plots and juggle multiple identities. Furthermore, Lugosi’s voice marks his characters as alien and continental—they’re fundamentally unlike the white-bread Americans around them. Even in Bowery at Midnight, where he’s leading a ring of jewel thieves, he still fancies himself superior, describing their gangster lingo as “rather picturesque.” As a psychology professor and criminal, he knows too well what evil lurks in the hearts of men. He’s the bastion of this secret knowledge, a position that’s visualized through his soup kitchen’s absurd architecture: it has a secret office, with a secret basement, with a secret graveyard room hidden even farther away.
Yes, these are preposterous movies. At one point, The Devil Bat messes up the name of Dave O’Brien’s character, and Bowery at Midnight has an inexplicable subplot involving reanimated corpses. But in the midst of this low-budget trash, Bela Lugosi—a man who performed Shakespeare in Budapest when American cinema was in its infancy—found space for poetry and tragedy. He played mass-murdering mad scientists brought low by erotic obsession, scarred by betrayal, and destroyed by their own ambition. (Dr. Carruthers, for one, dies at the fangs of his own killer bat.) Condescending, beguiling, and tormented, Lugosi was never just a monster. He was a monster with a broken heart.
Panic in Detroit:
RoboCop and Reagan’s America
[Originally published in Paracinema #14, Dec. 2011]
“PART MAN, PART MACHINE, ALL COP.”
This tagline, haiku-like in its brevity, introduces us to tragic hero Alex Murphy. He’s a loving husband and father (as well as a straight-arrow Detroit policeman) who’s cut down prematurely by crime lord Clarence Boddicker. But then a Christ-like twist: he’s resurrected by corporate giant OCP, which gives him armor plating, lightning reflexes, and the name “RoboCop.” As his new cyborg identity eclipses his human past, the last two words of that tagline (“all cop”) prove to be more than a masterstroke of studio sloganeering—they become a pulpy epitaph.
On the surface, the movie RoboCop looks like an exercise in wish fulfillment. OCP transforms Murphy from a workaday patrolman into a mechanized superhero, and he gets to stop bad guys through sheer force of will, with no fear of being outgunned or outmanned. But underneath that no-holds-barred action—beneath the fight scenes and the explosions and the macho catchphrase “Dead or alive, you’re coming with me!”—it’s actually a very melancholy story. It’s the kind of genre-cloaked Trojan horse that its director, Paul Verhoeven (Total Recall, Starship Troopers), loved to smuggle into multiplexes.
Consequently, RoboCop is less about the awesomeness of cyborgs, and more about the pathos of dehumanization. Consider a scene midway through the film: RoboCop, whose memory has ostensibly been wiped clean, discovers the file on “Alex Murphy.” Consumed with curiosity, he goes to his old house, but his wife and son are long gone, the house is for sale, and all that remains are a few memory-triggering objects—a “World Class Husband” mug and a polaroid from the previous Halloween. In a series of POV shots, he recalls his family life in this now-empty house. It’s a scene of tearjerking poignancy rooted in Murphy/RoboCop’s absolute personal loss.
In truth, then, it’s neither fun nor glamorous to be RoboCop. It’s tragic. Furthermore, it’s a tragedy with real-world implications. Verhoeven’s film premiered in 1987, in the midst of Ronald Reagan’s presidency and near the end of the Cold War. Near the end, mind you, of the most anxious, paranoid period in American history. The Cold War wasn’t just fought by a select few servicemen overseas; it was fought by the entire population of the United States, mobilized and alert, with a colossal percentage of their nation’s annual budget devoted to military spending. Essentially, Cold War America was RoboCop: no free will, acting entirely at the behest of the military-industrial complex, dominated by a few preinstalled directives.
To carry this analogy further, let’s compare RoboCop to another ’80s classic, The Terminator. Certainly that film’s robotic assassin follows a predestined path, but more importantly, so does heroine Sarah Connor. Although the franchise ended up embracing a dubious “no fate” philosophy, Sarah and her son’s lives are mapped out by the predictions of time traveler Kyle Reese. As with RoboCop, all of Sarah’s actions are circumscribed by forces beyond her ken. This utter lack of self-determination underlies the two films’ shared focus: how individuals in Cold War America are engulfed by historical trends and all-powerful, amoral institutions.
In the near-future world of RoboCop, OCP is just such an institution. Those letters stand for “Omni Consumer Products,” a name that’s vague and grandiose to the point of self-parody. OCP’s business practices are blueprints for corporate totalitarianism: they privatize the Detroit police force in a bid to gentrify the inner city, then whip up increasingly fascist methods of reducing the crime rate. Even an OCP “good guy” like RoboCop mastermind Bob Morton (played with coked-up vulgarity by Miguel Ferrer) is still a high-energy sociopath in the vein of Wall Street‘s Gordon Gekko. Similarly, the grandfatherly CEO, known only as The Old Man, is “very disappointed” when a weapons demonstration kills an employee… but only because it means the loss of fifty million dollars in government contracts.
And in this cesspool of self-interest and corruption, the cockiest, most villainous executive of them all is Ronny Cox’s Dick Jones. In one exemplary scene, Jones sits in a bathroom stall while OCP up-and-comers exchange gossip at the urinals, the camera resting behind his leg. The low-angle shot catches him with his pants down, but rather than seeming ridiculous, he comes across as silently intimidating. He’s OCP’s invisible tyrant, lurking and listening when you least expect him. He’s also a consummate puppetmaster, cutting crooked deals with Boddicker when RoboCop gets in his way. Jones’s sinister schemes don’t make him unusual for OCP, however. They just make him superior. He’s a paragon of Darwinian adaptation—lean and merciless, like a shark. He knows exactly what it takes to survive.
In its savage representation of corporate culture, RoboCop is distinctly a film of its era. But its time-specific critiques go far beyond OCP. Morally, politically, and aesthetically, the film emblematizes the tackiness, shallowness, and excess that typified the 1980s. To explain, let me first jump ahead to 1995, when Verhoeven directed a self-consciously trashy opus called Showgirls. It’s a bitchy, homoerotic rip-off of All About Eve wherein a pair of Las Vegas strippers (one a newcomer, the other a seasoned pro) flirt and fight for two straight hours. Unlike RoboCop, it was a critical and financial failure, likely due to its NC-17 rating and iconically bad screenplay.
But the films still have plenty in common: both are shot like live-action cartoons, whether in terms of their gratuitous violence (RoboCop) or sexuality (Showgirls). Both contain broad performances that wouldn’t be out of place in Looney Tunes. (Kurtwood Smith as Boddicker, for example, or Kyle MacLachlan as the sleazy impresario in Showgirls.) And both films showcase Verhoeven’s modus operandi: to send up American pop culture through exaggeration. In Showgirls, he aspires to the impossible by exaggerating Las Vegas, a city defined by its excesses. No line or gesture is unsubtle enough for his vision of exotic dancing as a blood sport.
The satire in RoboCop is far more subdued, but still audacious. The film is sprinkled with fake snippets of future TV that replicate the tics and ironies of ’80s pop culture with eerie accuracy. A news story about a space-based laser cannon blowing up Santa Barbara, for example, is reported with just the right measure of smarmy faux-gravitas. And a popular sitcom consists of the context-free punchline “I’d buy that for a dollar!” followed by a drawn-out cackle. It’s lowest common denominator comedy followed to its logical conclusion. This concise, razor-sharp satire infects every detail of RoboCop’s fictional universe, from the interior design to the brand preferences, as Verhoeven reproduces Reagan-era kitsch in order to contaminate it.
Products dominate this film: TVs, houses, guns, cars, board games. They’re glitzy and garish, superficially suggesting an era of unbridled prosperity. But they’re rendered with a dystopian edge. Spawned by a morally bankrupt corporate system, they’re instantiations of a pervasive emptiness. It’s a scathing vision of American materialism. Perhaps the greatest indicator of RoboCop’s fundamental pessimism is the spiritually toxic origin story of its own title character. His heroism is compromised from conception by his complicity with the race/class warfare that OCP is waging against the citizens of old Detroit. He may kill Dick Jones in the end, but he’s still now and forever an OCP product.
Over two decades later, RoboCop looks shockingly prescient. Its specifics may be eternally tied to the ’80s, but its ideological targets—police states, evil corporations, and complacent consumers—are just as relevant as ever. Its lessons are applicable whenever individual autonomy is suffocated by the powers that be: in the War on Terror, the Recession, or the brutal reprisals against the Occupy protests. Masterfully imbricating its sociopolitical subtext with its futuristic conceits, RoboCop is both a sci-fi masterpiece and a subversive fable of late-stage capitalism.
RoboCop was just one in a wave of satirical sci-fi films in the 1980s. Here are a few of its anti-authoritarian brethren, all great films to boot:
The Brother from Another Planet (1984)
Starring Joe Morton as a mute, three-toed alien stranded in Harlem, John Sayles’ fish-out-of-water story plays like a race-conscious answer to E.T. Forget phoning home; The Brother just wants to blend in. He’s pursued by a pair of intergalactic slave traders disguised as white government agents, a conceit that could have turned Brother from Another Planet into a heavy-handed allegory. But Sayles, who cut his teeth writing tongue-in-cheek horror movies like Piranha and The Howling, invests the film with observational humor and quirky energy. It’s less about an alien refugee and, thanks to Morton’s reactive performance, more about the sometimes silly, sometimes poignant dreams that his new friends project onto him.
Repo Man (1984)
“Repo man’s always intense.” That’s the terse credo of Alex Cox’s cult classic, a genre-blending firecracker set in the desolate streets of 1980s Los Angeles. Repo Man respects no sacred cows; it roasts consumer culture, TV, and organized religion. It even features an idiot savant flatly declaring that “John Wayne was a fag.” Flinging out punk rock, conspiracy theories, and nuclear hysteria like cultural pinballs, Repo Man’s a pissed-off manifesto in the tradition of Beat poetry and bathroom graffiti. Emilio Estevez stars as a disaffected teenager, a casting choice that makes the film read like a preemptive retort to The Breakfast Club’s apolitical insularity. This is an explosion of youthful resentment that would make John Hughes blanch.
Like George Orwell’s 1984, Terry Gilliam’s Brazil is about a lonely government drone who gets tangled up with would-be rebels and falls afoul of the fascist authorities. Unlike 1984, however, it’s wickedly funny, capitalizing on the dark sense of humor Gilliam honed while a member of Monty Python. Bleak jokes about runaway bureaucracy, cosmetic surgery, and even false flag terrorism make Brazil’s dystopian nightmare a little more palatable. It’s like Orwell’s vision of “a boot stamping on a human face forever,” but this time, the face is laughing. Brazil is a coup of set design and casting, filling its vast, impersonal urban vistas with grotesque bourgeois faces. (Who could forget Katherine Helmond’s stretched-out cheeks?) It even has space for Robert De Niro playing a renegade plumber, the last free spirit in a conformist world.
The Quiet Earth (1985)
Kiwi scientist Zac Hobson is consumed by guilt: he’s complicit in a project that’s wiped away almost everyone on earth. Alone in Auckland, he goes berserk, setting up an audience of cardboard cut-outs and ranting to them about his hubris: “I have dedicated all my scientific knowledge and skill to projects which I knew could be put to evil purposes. For the common good, they said!” It’s a harsh ethical lesson, acted out with loony sincerity by Bruno Lawrence, who plays Zac; he’s confined to a “last man on earth” scenario of his own making. (Albeit not for long.) Director Geoff Murphy’s apocalyptic drama is a scathing indictment of profiteering Cold War scientists, told with disaster movie spectacle and glints of wry absurdism. When science is seduced by political opportunism, the film explains, it can cost you the world.
They Live (1988)
Prescient and unapologetically lowbrow, John Carpenter’s last masterpiece sets up 1980s America as an elaborate ruse, a totalitarian state secretly established by alien overlords. When a pair of construction workers—played by Keith David and professional wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper—discover some special sunglasses, they suddenly see through their civilization’s sham. Billboards and newspapers become injunctions to “OBEY” and “SUBMIT,” while people in positions of power are revealed to be ghoulish aliens. It’s a go-for-broke critique of consumerism and corporate dominance, itself disguised by an action movie facade. Carpenter came here to chew bubble gum and satirize Reagan’s America. And he’s all out of bubble gum.