It’s not always easy for directors to make the transition from one decade to the next. For every Steven Spielberg there are several Francis Ford Coppolas. Filmgoers’ expectations change, technology improves, and the industry moves in a new direction. If a director can’t keep up with the times or makes one or two bad movies, they can be forgotten or pushed aside for fresh new talent.
I’d like to talk about 10 talented directors from the ‘80s who didn’t make the cut in the ‘90s for one reason or another. That doesn’t diminish their early work. It just shows how hard it is to stay on top once you reach such a tall pinnacle.
1. John G. Avildsen
Remember him? The guy who brought us Rocky, The Karate Kid, and Lean on Me? After The Karate Kid Part III and Rocky V nearly killed off those respective series, John G. Avildsen slowed down his output and only made four films in the ‘90s despite doing nearly triple that number in the previous decade. None of them are particularly awful, but The Power of One, 8 Seconds, A Fine and Private Place, and Desert Heat weren’t exactly breakout hits, either. This director went the distance, but now it’s time to throw in the towel.
2. John Badham
John Badham might not be a household name, but he is responsible for some of the best movies from your childhood. Remember Saturday Night Fever, WarGames, Short Circuit, and Stakeout? He directed those classics. Unfortunately, they all got horrible sequels, one of which Badham directed himself. He struggled in the ‘90s, directing the mediocre Mel Gibson vehicle Bird on a Wire in 1990 and Michael J. Fox’s lackluster The Hard Way in 1991, followed by Another Stakeout and Nick of Time. He’s never been able to recapture the magic of his ‘70s and ‘80s hits.
3. Mel Brooks
Mel Brooks’ directing career arguably peaked in the 1970s, but there’s no denying he was still on top in the 1980s with hits like History of the World Part I and Spaceballs. But he was never the same after Spaceballs. 1991’s Life Stinks is a pretty horrible movie. Robin Hood: Men in Tights has some good laughs here and there, but it’s no masterpiece. And Dracula: Dead and Loving It was the final nail in the coffin for Brooks – a film so devoid of humor that even my stupid pun is funnier than 95 percent of the jokes in that movie. Thankfully, he stopped directing new films after that disaster, though he did turn a few of his more popular old films into musicals. No harm in that.
4. John Carpenter
Everything John Carpenter touched used to turn into gold. He transformed generic horror films into high art with Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, and The Thing. He created a dystopian future world on a shoestring budget in Escape from New York. He turned a simple love story into something truly special in Starman. Then he finished the ‘80s by making a bunch of underrated/ahead-of-their-time movies, like Big Trouble in Little China, Prince of Darkness, and They Live. But none of his movies in the ‘90s came close to greatness. Memoirs of an Invisible Man, In the Mouth of Madness, Village of the Damned, Escape from L.A., Vampires, and Ghosts of Mars have their moments, but they are all utterly forgettable compared to Carpenter’s earlier work.
5. Richard Donner
Richard Donner started directing TV show episodes in the ‘60s, but he made the jump to the big screen with 1976’s The Omen. He followed that up with a string of wonderful films, including Superman: The Movie, The Toy, Ladyhawke, The Goonies, Lethal Weapon, Scrooged, and Lethal Weapon 2. But after this extraordinary string of hits, he ran into a few snags. Radio Flyer was a disappointment and Lethal Weapon 3 couldn’t match the first two in the series. Maverick was the best Western spoof since Blazing Saddles, but things quickly disintegrated from there. Assassins, Conspiracy Theory, and Lethal Weapon 4 signaled the end of Donner’s peak and the beginning of a quick descent into mediocre material.
6. John Hughes
John Hughes wasn’t just a great screenwriter; he also directed some classic comedies, including Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Weird Science, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Planes, Trains and Automobiles, and Uncle Buck. 1991’s Curly Sue was the last film he ever directed. It’s not terrible, but it’s definitely not as good as his other work. Also, at that time his writing took a nosedive. He wrote the first Beethoven movie, followed by Dennis the Menace, Baby’s Day Out, the live-action version of 101 Dalmatians, and Flubber. None of those films are particularly funny. But when the man was on fire in the ‘80s, no one could top him.
7. Roland Joffé
You probably don’t even know this guy’s name, but Roland Joffé made three compelling films in the ‘80s: The Killing Fields, The Mission, and Fat Man and Little Boy. But in 1995 he threw away all that goodwill by making one of the worst ever film adaptations of a book: The Scarlet Letter, starring Demi Moore and Gary Oldman. It included an Indian attack and other things that had author Nathaniel Hawthorne doing somersaults in his grave. Joffé never recovered from that huge misstep.
8. Lawrence Kadsan
While he’s most famous for co-writing The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Return of the Jedi, Lawrence Kasdan was also a great director in his own right. He started the ‘80s strong with hits like Body Heat, The Big Chill, and Silverado, all of which launched young stars’ careers. But his follow-up work failed to connect with audiences. 1994’s Wyatt Earp was nowhere near as good as the previous year’s Tombstone, and French Kiss is one of Meg Ryan’s lesser romantic comedies. And I know it didn’t come out in the ‘90s, but Dreamcatcher is an atrocious movie that more or less killed Kasdan’s career for good. How can a movie that starts out so well end so horribly? That’s a good analogy for pretty much all of these directors’ careers.
9. John Landis
Many of the best comedies of the ‘80s came from John Landis: Blues Brothers, An American Werewolf in London, Trading Places, Spies Like Us, Three Amigos, and Coming to America. Oh, and he also directed a little music video called Michael Jackson’s Thriller – quite possibly the best music video ever made. Landis tried to recapture the old magic in the ‘90s by reteaming with Eddie Murphy for Beverly Hills Cop III and with Dan Aykroyd for Blues Brothers 2000. But both of those sequels were epic failures. He still directs TV show episodes here and there, but he’s done making classic comedies.
10. John McTiernan
Who doesn’t love Predator and Die Hard? John McTiernan wrote the book on how to make the perfect action movie in the late ‘80s. He started the ‘90s in superb fashion with The Hunt for Red October, which is still the best Jack Ryan movie to date. But then he made the ambitious but absurd Medicine Man and Last Action Hero. He tried to recover with Die Hard with a Vengeance, but then he dropped the ball again with letdowns like The 13th Warrior and a remake of The Thomas Crown Affair. In the early 2000s, a few lame films and an arrest prevented him from mounting a comeback.
Did you notice that that’s a lot of Johns on this list? John G. Avildsen, John Badham, John Carpenter, John Hughes, John Landis, and John McTiernan. My goodness! I certainly didn’t plan that when I did my research for this article and picked these 10 directors. I could make a joke about all of their careers ending in the toilet… but I’ll try to keep it classy.
I have a special place in my heart for all of these filmmakers. They gave us many incredible movies, and I like to focus on those rather than the horrible ones that came later. Only the greatest filmmakers are capable of dying the hardest.
This is the Deja Reviewer bidding you farewell until we meet again.
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You must really like your movies! Excellent work done. I got to really know the directors you wrote about. I am sure there are many more worth mentioning. Maybe too many to list.
Do you have plans for another chiasm review soon? The last several were all at the end of the month, and they’re truly my favorite part of this amazing site. Keep up the good work!
Thank you. I have about a half dozen planned. I tried to do one a few weeks ago, but on close inspection I realized the movie I was analyzing didn’t quite work, so I abandoned it. But I will definitely have a new one soon. Maybe I’ll work on that next, just because you were so nice to ask. 🙂
Just in time for my birthday next weekend!
Thanks again. Love the site. Peace. 🙂
Happy birthday! Cinematic Chiasmus: Back to the Future Trilogy
I don’ t like to disagree with you, but “Last Action Hero” is the best action spoof of all time (tied with “True Lies”) and one of the most underrated movies ever made. It’ s the father of Edgar Wright movies like “Hot Fuzz”, “Shaun of the dead” and “The World’s End”, in my opinion. Is a movie ahead of its decade.
“In the mouth of madness” – Great surrealistic movie. A true gem in the middle of bad Carpenter´s movies.
“Dennis the Menace” – Not a excellent movie, but better than most of the movies rated G of the 90’s. Christopher Lloyd is awesome in this (camp, like most of his roles, but wonderfully camp).
Sorry for my bad english.
I don’t mind you disagreeing with me at all. Thank you for sharing. I worried that my words “ambitious but absurd” would be interpreted as being really negative toward Last Action Hero. I don’t mean it’s a terrible movie. It’s got a lot of intelligent ideas and genuinely hilarious jokes. I just feel like The Purple Rose of Cairo and Who Framed Roger Rabbit did the “movie within a movie” concept better years before Last Action Hero.
The scene where Schwarzenegger comes face to face with a character he played could have been a profound moment, but I felt like it was too underplayed. They missed an opportunity to do something really special with this movie. It’s not bad, but I wish it was better. Shaun of the Dead is more what I was hoping for, I think.
And you’re right. I shouldn’t have lumped In the Mouth of Madness in with all the other lackluster John Carpenter films of the ’90s. It has a truly creepy atmosphere, and I like how he kind of plays with the idea of an author’s stories coming to life. It turns end-of-the-world movies on their head.
I’ve never been able to force myself to sit all the way through Dennis the Menace, so maybe I missed all the really good moments. Maybe it’s unfair for me to judge it when it wasn’t really made for me.
Thanks again for sharing your thoughts and keeping me honest.
Thinking about you wrote, the scene with the “two Arnolds” could be more deep and interesting.
In fact, “The Purple Rose of Cairo” and “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” are better than “Last Action Hero”, mainly the Zemeckis’s movie, an animated version of “Chinatown” (in the words of the director) .
Could you make a movie mashup with “Chinatown” and “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”?
Now there’s an interesting idea. I will rewatch those movies and see if I can spot enough similarities to make it work. That sounds like fun. Thank you for the suggestion.
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I’m glad you like the suggestion. Watch the DVD version of “Who Framed…” with the Zemeckis’s commentaries.
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