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Supergirl (1984)

by Glenn Erickson Jul 21, 2018

 

We’re told that the first live- action feature film super-heroine was the marvelous Helen Slater, whose fine presence redeems this last film in the Salkind Superman franchise. CineSavant likes it for the right reasons — his very young kids adored it — but can see its turnip screenwriting and frayed corners showing through. The release combines a 125-minute Blu-ray with an overstuffed 139-minute DVD.


Supergirl
Blu-ray
Warner Archive Collection
1984 / Color / 2:40 widescreen / 125 (BD) & 139 (SD) min. / Street Date July 24, 2018 / available through the WBshop / 21.99
Starring: Faye Dunaway, Helen Slater, Peter O’Toole, Mia Farrow, Brenda Vaccaro, Peter Cook, Simon Ward, Marc McClure, Hart Bochner, Maureen Teefy.
Cinematography: Alan Hume
Film Editor: Malcolm Cooke
Visual Effects: Derek Meddings
Original Music: Jerry Goldsmith
Written by David Odell
Produced by Timothy Burrill, Ilya Salkind
Directed by
Jeannot Szwarc

 

I got caught up short about ten years ago when doing extras for the movie Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. I don’t care very much for that film personally, and indulged myself with a sarcastic discussion of its weaknesses. I found out in short order that I’d given offense to several friends about ten years younger than me. They’d all seen it at age 5 through 10 or so, loved it, and didn’t appreciate my negative attitude. My opinion hasn’t changed, but my respect for filmgoer nostalgia has.

Nothing cinematic is stronger than the love for movies one was delighted to see ‘click’ with one’s kids when they were small. Think the scene in Mad Men where Don Draper finally connects with his son over a shared matinee of Planet of the Apes. In 1981, when my daughter was two and I was earning a pittance as an editing assistant, our no-cost Saturday entertainment consisted of riding to work together on my bicycle and watching videotapes of Dumbo and Superman — I didn’t have a VHS player but the office did. We must have seen them twenty times. Later, I took my three kids to see a special Cannon showing of Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. It didn’t matter that the story was weak and the effects terrible, it was a great occasion. But the strongest moment of that kind was in 1984, when we went to a now-defunct Nabe theater on Western Avenue for a matinee of Supergirl. My oldest son was three, and it was his first movie. His older sister took charge, sitting with her arm around him and whispering (very softly) in his ear to talk him through things he wasn’t getting.

Supergirl is not exactly Oscar material either, but that didn’t matter. My little son clearly fell deeply in love with Supergirl / Linda Lee. We had him cheering when good stuff happened. When he realized the show was over, he cried because Supergirl was going away. Unbreakable memories.

 

The movie has a lot of lamebrain comedy and some passages suffer from a lack of imagination. Its effects will not impress compared to the modern Marvel and DC pictures. They look better now on Blu-ray — I remember the mattes, etc., looking more washed-out on the big screen. The saving difference is that it’s a good picture for small children. The level of jeopardy wasn’t steep, at least not with his kindergarten-age sister gently whispering EGBOK in his ear.

Parents ought to think this idea over a bit before they subject four-year-olds to movies that glorify violence, sanctify combat and reduce every problem to an absolute good vs. evil conflict. The new Mister Rogers movie Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is doing well because it fulfills the need of the hour: people really want to see some hope in the world again. It’s important for kids to watch non-ironic movies with decent values, ones where there’s a clear benefit and even a glamour for being Good. I have to admit that I encouraged my kids to cheer at Christopher Reeve’s line, “I always tell the truth, Lois.”

If the movie were twice as dumb it would still work beautifully, because kids will instantly relate to Helen Slater as Supergirl. She’s as true-blue and noble as her male cousin from Krypton, and she comes with her own distinct feminine personality. The recent CBS TV show took pains to update its heroine as a feisty female role model but also saddled her with a permanent war on her hands — she’s yet another lone warrior trying to save the world from evil conspiracies, etc.. Yes, the 1984 movie isn’t exactly liberated — it was never going to win medals for making boyfriend issues the main motivation for all the female characters. But Supergirl herself exercises restraint, and an elegant restraint at that. Slater’s heroine works because she fulfills the need for a role model who embodies simple, uncomplicated virtues.

The screenplay by David Odell (he wrote this!) plays as if he warped to accommodate the story’s star villain, and then further distorted the affair with unnecessary, leaden comedy relief. In another (underwater?) dimension, survivors of the lost planet Krypton live in the crystalline Argo City, which is powered by a magical device called the Omegahedron, a cross between a Fabergé egg and a tennis ball. Scientist Zaltar (Peter O’Toole) foolishly allows young Kara (Helen Slater, straight from an ABC Afternoon Special) to play with the Omegahedron, and she immediately loses the thing. Argo City is doomed, so Kara’s parents Alura and Zor-El (Mia Farrow & Simon Ward) let her strike out on her own to get it back. Kara emerges from the other dimension in the U.S.A., newly rebranded as Supergirl and enhanced with the familiar super-powers. She takes a cover identity as Linda Lee at a girls’ boarding school, where she meets Lois Lane’s cheerful niece Lucy Lane (Maureen Teefy of Fame and Grease 2), and Lucy’s sort-of boyfriend Jimmy Olsen (Marc McClure).

But, omigosh, the unprincipled spiritualist Selena (Faye Dunaway) has come into possession of the Omegahedron. Her knowledge of Black Magic (!) gives her access to its powers, and she’s soon running amuck with dreams of world domination. Selena allows her gullible acolyte / informed warlock Nigel (Peter Cook of Bedazzled) to help her develop her power-mad skills, and then victimizes him. She sweeps her sidekick Bianca (Brenda Vaccaro of Midnight Cowboy) up in her mad schemes, ignoring Bianca’s many pleas for moderation.

Selena’s clumsy ‘evil’ tryouts include making a construction machine run amuck in the local town, but her big goof is putting a love spell on the handsome but rather stupid school groundskeeper Ethan (Hart Bochner, later of Die Hard). Selena has another reason to become furious when the spell inadvertently makes Ethan go gaga over Linda Lee / Supergirl. When Selena finally gets her act together, she conjures herself a magic palace atop a colossal new mountain outside the town. Turning the town into a police state, she imprisons most of the young cast. The new empress of darkness neutralizes Supergirl by banishing her to The Phantom Zone. There Supergirl finds a discouraged and despairing Zaltar, in self-exile.

 

Supergirl’s main problem is a script that makes Faye Dunaway into a feeble clown instead of a formidable adversary. It’s a camped-up role in a bad satanic sitcom. Attending Selena and taking her abuse is a bored-looking Peter Cook. The unfortunate Brenda Vaccaro tries her utmost to do something with Bianca’s dozens of Ethel Mertz- like sidebar comments. That the relatively inoffensive Bianca should be consumed by the ‘Shadow Demon,’ and the warlock Nigel is forgiven, doesn’t feel right. Poor Dunaway rants and raves as the thoughtlessly conceived Selena, who director Jeannot Szwarc continues to feature in laughable ‘stylized’ compositions, conjuring her spells bathed in mystic lighting and strong winds, etc..

Peter O’Toole picks up his paycheck and runs, but the kids have more interesting scenes to play. Their gee-whiz enthusiasm meshes well with the corny Nancy Drew- like teen activities. Marc McClure shows good spirit; I hope his Superman contract compensated him well for this picture. Hart Bochner’s role couldn’t be more humiliating if they pulled his pants down and shoved a pie in his face. Older movies aimed at girls routinely provided teen heroines with pretty-boy puppy love objects, but Bochner’s doofus Ethan looks especially silly. Ethan was likely thought to be a refreshing feminist reversal on conventions. Women in thrillers have always been passive, ineffectual sponge-heads, present only to look pretty and scream on cue. It ought to be fun to see a handsome male lead treated the same way, but it’s not.

 

To compensate for a lack of standout action set-pieces, the movie emphasizes Supergirl’s subjective experience. She expresses sensitivity and affection for this new planet she’s visiting — her cousin Superman never stopped to smell the flowers or soak up a glorious sunset. Kara / Linda / Supergirl has good feeling for her friends and carries on a sweet interaction with the deranged Ethan. But she never loses sight of her goal to recover the spinning powerball and save Argo City. I hear she’s running for Congress this Fall.

This is the last of the Salkinds’ official DC series, and the special effects are all over the place. The flying effects are not bad — Zoran Perisic’s zooming front-projection tricks aren’t billed, but these shots look almost as good. The stuntwomen flying on wires do well enough, but several shots slip through where Supergirl’s progress across the sky looks a little shaky. Slater’s acrobatic landings aren’t as boringly perfect as those of a Marvel hero — which is a good thing.

Nobody is going to think that making a single ordinary construction skiploader move by remote control is acceptable for a ‘super’ action scene. The visuals en route to Earth and in the Phantom Zone are barely adequate. Selena seems to share Dr. Julian Karswell’s skill for conjuring a demon from hell, and a nighttime sequence of an invisible monster threatening the school is done quite well. This final demon is a puppet obscured by distorting lenses, and it’s just not that impressive. But the bright and un-clouded honesty of Helen Slater’s performance pulls us through mostly anything, even when she is anamorphically- stretched in cheesy effect shots in the claws of a demon.

The show may be cheap in some respects but there are some really great effects, accomplished by miniatures expert Derek Meddings and the matte painter Doug Ferris. The establishing shots of Selena’s towering mountain fortress are really, really good — the camera pans from a dialogue scene to reveal the magic mountain behind a snarl of telephone wires, etc. and then tilts up seemingly forever. Supergirl zooms up the face of the mountain as a tiny dot with a cape. These shots are just great — it isn’t immediately apparent how they were accomplished.

What’s more, the magic mountain captures the imaginative vibe of the old Superman comics of the 1950s. We don’t need things to look real. They need to be ‘amazing.’


 

The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of Supergirl carries one Blu-ray and one DVD. The Blu-ray boasts a much-improved HD scan of the long (125 min.) ‘International Cut.’ On the ‘extra’ DVD, the Director’s Cut is a whopping 139 minutes in duration. It appeared on an earlier (2000) Anchor Bay DVD. It throws in a lot more of Selena’s machinations, and some extra scenes at the Girls’ School. I only skipped about, but found a couple of extended scenes that mostly feel like padding. The extra footage hammers the story out pretty thin, if you get my drift.

The International Version is fine. The original American theatrical cut (105 minutes) is not present; I’m not sure it has ever been released on videodisc. I wonder if some dialogue lines were deleted for America, as when Selena makes an unfunny joke at the expense of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

The Blu-ray carries the extras. The first is an hourlong TV show to promote the 1984 release. All the stars and filmmakers offer testimonials to the film’s unique qualities; the real reason to watch are the Behind-the-Scenes shots. The producers did give Helen Slater a reasonable press build-up for the film, which is nice.

Director Jeannot Szwarc and consultant Scott Michael Bosco are on a commentary also sourced from the 2000 DVD. Szwarc points out all the effects shots and reminds us that the film’s designer was the esteemed Richard MacDonald. He also says that Demi Moore was up for the part of Lucy Lane, but dropped out for a Michael Caine movie, which I assume was the underage nudity-fest Blame it on Rio.

An original trailer is present as well. As it’s forced to showcase Faye Dunaway at the expense of Helen Slater, it’s got structural issues. Three years earlier Dunaway entered the Phantom Zone of camp ridicule with Mommie Dearest, but for my money her real bury-it-and-don’t-look-back performance is here. Most critical analyses simply say that the movie ‘wasn’t well received.’ They obviously didn’t ask my delighted, lovesick 3-year old.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson



Supergirl
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Vintage Featurette; Commentary with Jeannot Szwarc and Scott Michael Bosco, Trailer
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 19, 2018
(5781girl)

Final product for this review was provided free by The Warner Archive Collection.

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About Glenn Erickson

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 6.51.08 PM

Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.