A CONSIDERABLE AMOUNT of pressure lifted from a slump-ridden strife-torn movie business last weekend. Many of the auspicious spring releases had wilted fast, interest rates remained intimidating, and the Directors Guild was only a month away from joining the Writers Guild in a strike. Then "Raiders of the Lost Ark" was sneaked at hundreds of theaters on Friday, June 5.
Suddenly, the thrill of discovery was in the air. A sensational new movie had taken hold of spectators, uniting them in a joyful delirium for two amusing, action-packed hours. It became certain that the summer 1981 film season would have a pace-setting blockbuster of enormous appeal. While taking the moviegoing public by storm, "Raiders" promised to reverse the lingering slump and lead a record-smashing resurgence at the box office.
While "Raiders" is more than enough movie to alter and establish trends by itself, it's not the only appealing prospect in sight. The summer season could produce a bumper crop of hits, dominated more than ever before by adventure spectacles and knockabout comedies, an outgrowth of the success achieved over the last few years by films like "Jaws," "Star Wars," "Smokey and the Bandit," "National Lampoon's Animal House," "The Empire Strikes Back" and "Airplane!"
The unveiling of "Raiders" wasn't the only upbeat sign last weekend. The third Cheech & Chong comedy, "Nice Dreams," opened to national grosses of $8 million, indicating that their audience, which had turned out for "Up in Smoke" and "Cheech & Chong's Next Movie" in previous summers, remained loyal. It's reasonable to assume that the "Smokey" audience will be susceptible to "The Cannonball Run," the new automotive chase comedy engineered by director Hal Needham for Burt Reynolds and an all-star cast that includes Farrah Fawcett, Roger Moore, Dom DeLuise, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and Jackie Chan; that the Mel Brooks audience will welcome "History of the World, Part I," a much funnier outing than his last, "High Anxiety"; that juveniles and parents charmed by "The Muppet Movie" will look forward to "The Great Muppet Caper," in which Jim Henson makes his directing debut and Miss Piggy encounters skulduggery in the fashion world; that George Hamilton will improve on "Love at First Bite" by playing sibling swashbucklers in "Zorro and the Gay Blade"; and that Bill Murray might have a vehicle as effective as "Meatballs" in "Stripes," a service comedy that could also benefit from the recent success of "Pvt. Benjamin."
While nothing is likely to rival "Raiders" in the adventure category -- it's like several swell movies compressed into one overwhelming cinmatic stimulant -- there's no reason to expect the worst from "Superman II" or "For Your Eyes Only," the 12th installment in the James Bond series. In addition, there's the prospect of a sleeper or two lurking in the pack, temporarily obscured by the movies that would appear to be known quantities to audiences.
John Carpenter's "Escape From New York" has a gimmick that could be gripping: a vision of Manhattan, circa 1999, as a federal penal colony, with Kurt Russell, who seems to be on the verge of stardom, as a mercenary ex-con hired to rescue the president, Donald Pleasence, after Air Force One is forced down in the urban jungle. Perhaps to avoid confusion, the John Huston film "Escape to Victory" has been shortened to "Victory." It suggests an attempt to merge elements of "The Great Escape" and "The Longest Yard."
Michael Caine, Sylvester Stallone, Max von Sydow and Pele are key members of a soccer team organized among Allied prisoners of war to provide opposition for a touring German national team; the POWs plot an escape to coincide with the exhibition game, not exactly a friendly contest. A new medieval fantasy, "Dragonslayer," a co-production of Paramount and Disney, looked fascinating in a product reel. The story of a young sorcerer's apprentice who unites with a maiden to rid her village of a dragon, the film may have the tension and human interest that eluded "Excalibur."
Brian De Palma, represented last summer by "Dressed to Kill," returns with "Blow-Out," a conspiratorial thriller starring John Travolta as a sound editor who becomes a murder target after witnessing a car accident that costs the life of a prominent politician. De Palma was forced to reshoot his climactic chase sequence last weekend in Philadelphia, since the negative had been stolen. Michael Crichton also returns with a new mystery thriller, "Looker," a story about the deaths of several young models that implicates a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon, Albert Finney, and a producer of TV commercials, James Coburn. Moviegoers curious about Richard Marquand, the director chosen by George Lucas for the third "Star Wars" film, "Revenge of the Jedi," should be particularly interested in "Eye of the Needle," Marquand's production of the Ken Follett espionage thriller, with Donald Sutherland as the Nazi agent who discovers the secret of D-Day and Kate Nelligan as the British agent obliged to stop him.
The Disney organization promises to put its best foot forward with a charming new animated feature, "The Fox and the Hound." The company also has an adventure comedy called "Condor Man," with Michael Crawford as a successful comic book artist who falls in love with a KGB agent, Barbara Carrera, while vacationing in Paris and assumes the identity of one of his characters to help her defect. The National Lampoon organization also has an animated feature in the works: "Heavy Metal," a four-part anthology using stories from its grotesquely illustrated science-fiction periodical. Presumably not for the whole family. Meanwhile, "National Lampoon Goes to the Movies," a four-part anthology of film spoofs, has become a scratch, following previews that evidently failed to tickle the test audiences.
We'll find out whether the public that supported "The Howling" will respond to two other updates of the werewolf tradition, Michael Wadleigh's long-delayed version of the Whitley Streiber novel "Wolfen," with Albert Finney starring as a New York homicide detective, and John Landis' "An American Werewolf in London," with David Naughton of Dr. Pepper commercial fame as a touring college student transformed by a fateful encounter on the English moors.
Hollywood past and present will be the springboard for two satirical comedies. Steve Rash's "Under the Rainbow," co-starring Chevy Chase and Carrie Fisher, was inspired by the legends of the hell raised by the midgets cast as Munchkins during the production of "The Wizard of Oz." Blake Edwards' "S.O.B" appears to be autobiographical, a poison-pen satire about the fall of a successful Hollywood producer whose new picture has turned out to be a dismal flop. The clast includes Julie Andrews, William Holden, Larry Hagman, Robert Vaughn, Marisa Berenson, Shelly Winters, Robert Preston and Loretta Swit.
Bo Derek, the scenic wonder of Edwards' "10," is supposed to turn up as Jane in John Derek's version of "Tarzan, the Ape Man," shot on location in Sri Lanka. Brooke Shields will return in a reissue of "The Blue Lagoon," one of last summer's hits, and in "Endless Love," Franco Zeffirelli's film version of the Scott Spencer novel about a teen-age love affair that drives a young man, played by Martin Hewitt, to self-destructive desperation. Meanwhile, William Hurt appears primed to go too far at the adult level in "Body Heat," the first feature directed by Lawrence Kasdan, who has become prominent as the screenwriter on "The Empire Strikes Back" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark."
Potentially appealing romantic comedy matches: Carol Burnett as a Carmen Miranda imitator and Alan Arkin as a former ballplayer in "Chu Chu and the Philly Flash"; Dudley Moore as a wealthy drunk and Liza Minnelli as a shoplifter in "Arthur"; Divine as a love-starved Baltimore housewife and Tab Hunter as the star who brings her happiness in John Waters' "Polyester." On the other hand . . .
"The Blue Lagoon" has spawned an imitator titled "Paradise," with Willie Aames and Phoebe Cates as teens who discover Natural Love while stranded in the desert. On the intentionally funny side, there will be competing spoofs of horror melodramas in the "Friday the 13th" vein. One is wittily titled "Saturday the 14th." The other, "Student Bodies," is a low-budget Beau geste directed by Michael Ritchie of "Smile" and "The Bad News Bears."
The two-for-the-road premise hasn't worked out too well this year, what with "Back Roads" and "Second-Hand Hearts." John Schlesinger may have found a more amusing approach in "Honky Tonk Freeway," a comedy about the misadventures of a cross-country tour group, which includes Beau Bridges, Hume Cronyn, Beverly D'Angelo, William Devane, Teri Garr, Howard Hesseman, Geraldine Page, Jessica Tandy and Frances Lee McCain.
The available novelty attractions include a 3-D Western, "Coming at Ya!"; a film version of "Beatlemania" now being shot for saturation bookings in August; and "This Is Elvis," the controversial mishmash of documentary and fictionialized footage that purports to recreate the Presley career.
In a recent interview, Michael Eisner, the president of Paramount, anticipated "the biggest box-office summer ever," adding for impressive rhetorical effect, "The three most important questions are: 1. What is the film? 2. What is the film? And 3. What is the film?"
Of course, a few days after this appeared, "Raiders of the Lost Ark" was sneaked, and it became clear that Eisner's sensible outlook and confident prognosis owed a lot to inside information, I.e., the secure knowledge that Paramount would be in a dominant position as the distributor of "Raiders."
George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, the young filmmakers principally responsible for this superlative entertainment, had left incredible marks on earlier American movie summers. Spielberg's "Jaws" was the record-breaking hit of 1975, and Lucas' "Star Wars" surpassed it in 1977. After "Raiders" surpasses "Star Wars," no summer may seem complete without the prospect of further ripsnorting adventure from these ingenius popular artists.
The only question is which of the other new movies have enough on the ball to lend "raiders" substantial support. Many of us expected last summer to be a commercial whopper. "The Empire Strikes Back" (set for a four-week revival beginning July 31, incidentally) set a fast pace, but it ended up outdistancing every other hit by a vast margin. The slump that began in the wake of last summer's disappointments has persisted for an entire year.
The skid cannot last with a summer phenom like "Raiders" on the market. It's the kind of movie that generates extraordinary excitement and keeps fans coming back for repeat gratification. In addition, a glance at the local bookings suggests that "Raiders" can't help but generate spillover business for other movies. In the Washington area "Raiders" is playing at only one large auditorium, the K-B Cinema, which also enjoys the only engagement in the optimum presentation of 70mm and six-track Dolby Stereo. There is no way smallish auditoriums at suburban multiple theaters can hope to accommodate the demand for "Raiders."
It's simple arithmetic: they won't have enough seats to go around. You could make the case that these bookings will tend to keep the film's grosses significantly below its immediate moneymaking potential. Inevitably, some of the overflow from "Raiders" is going to end up at whatever's playing in adjacent auditoriums. The better those alternatives are, the better the prospects for a record-smashing summer.