A recent conversation with Pax and Jaime led me to rewatching the 1985 post-blaxsploitation kung fu epic, The Last Dragon, the other night and it occurred to me that there was an odd but interesting deluge of back-lit animation used in cult-y flicks from the 80s. If you aren’t familiar with The Last Dragon, the story revolves around Bruce Leroy, a young black martial artist seeking to attain kung fu enlightenment. This higher state is marked by exuding the Glow, as referenced in Dwight David’s titular song for the film:
“There’s a power deep inside you, an inner strength, You’ll find in time of need. The Glow…”
Of course, this is literal, and in a key scene in the flick Bruce Leroy shines with a “soul glow” that puts all the shiny hair in Coming to America to shame. This got me thinking about the dated, yet still awesome, special effect of using back-lit animation to highlight characters in 80s flicks. So I decided to compile a list of my five favorite movies that feature glowing characters. Certainly not an exhaustive list, these are just the five that are currently illuminating the dark recesses of my mind with their awesome luster. to paraphrase Jack Palance’s character from Hawk, The Slayer, let’s see how they glow!
#5 – The Last Dragon (1985)
I can’t help but kick off this list with the film that attracted me to the idea (like a moth to a…well you get the idea), The Last Dragon.
As I mentioned above, the film centers on Bruce Leroy (played by martial artist Taimak), but also features a bevy of eccentric, awesome, and eccentrically awesome characters including Julius J. Carry III as Sho’Nuff (The Shogun of Harlem), Christopher Murney as skeezy Eddie Arkadian (the king of the Arcades), Glen Eaton (as Leroy’s Bruce Lee-obsessed protégé Johnny Yu), Vanity as Laura Charles (the pop singer/veejay who seems to want nothing more than to bed the hero), and a very young Ernie Reyes Jr! If the film wasn’t cool enough by featuring an albino Mr. T clone, break dancing as a means of escaping bondage, and a ton of karate action, then it becomes legendary when in the climatic battle sequence Sho’Nuff and Bruce Leroy literally glow with the intensity of their kicks and punches.
#4 – Xanadu (1980)
Coming in at the next spot is a film that I would be ashamed not to mention in this context, as it’s quite possibly the one that started this iridescent 80s trend, Xanadu from 1980…
Starring Olivia Newton-John, Michael Beck, and Gene Kelly (in his final role shown on the silver screen), the film follows the exploits of Sonny Malone (Beck), a dreamer and artist who falls in love with Kira (Newton-John), one of the nine Olympian Muses. There is back-lit animation aplenty in this flick, all set to the glorious music of E.L.O. and Olivia Newton-John. In fact, though it was a box office failure upon its initial release, the film is, in a way, the blueprint for the look and feel of the late 70s/early 80s. Roller skates, short shorts, Lycra, neon, awkward dance sequences, singing longingly to the camera, and of course, back-lit glowing characters peppered throughout the film.
#3 – TRON (1982)
For the middle spot I had to go with the 1982 Disney computer-world epic, Tron…
Directed by Steve Lisberger, a pioneer in the art of back-lit animation, Tron barely features any characters that aren’t glowing bright blue, red or purple. In fact if there were an award given to the film that featured the most glowing characters, Tron would probably be the uncontested recipient for life. I feel slightly weird sticking this film in the middle of the pack, but I’d be willing to bet it’s the first film that most people would pick and therefore it would be slightly anticlimactic if it topped this list.
#2 – Young Einstein (1988)
In the number two spot, sits one of my favorite 80s era alternate history biographies, 1988’s Young Einstein!
Though the flick is light on back-lit animation, writer/director/star Yahoo Serious does use this technique in a very explosive way. Serious plays the titular young Einstein, the genius Tasmanian son of an apple farmer (and sometimes beer brewer), who discovers the theory of relativity (and carbonation) after splitting the very first beer atom. He heads to the mainland to seek a patent for his discovery, and along the way all sorts of weird hilarity ensues including the penultimate sequence in which Einstein uses a homemade electric guitar to siphon off the excess energy created by a malfunctioning beer-atom-splitter, averting the world’s first atomic meltdown. Let’s just say that he takes on a little more than he can handle and for a couple of seconds he sports a glorious atomic glow!
#1 – Howard the Duck (1986)
Coming in at the top of my list is the much maligned Lucasfilm production, Howard the Duck from 1986…
Howard the Duck is one of those flicks that tends to really polarize film goers (either they hate it, or love to hate it, it seems), but I remember sitting alone in a darkened theater and loving it as the very first frames ran across the screen. The movie combines so much of what I love about the 80s, awesome practical effects, stop motion animation, zany off-the-wall comedy, Lea Thompson in sleepwear, comic books, and of course, glowing characters thanks to the wonder of back-lit animation. Not only does it feature a glowing character, but one of my favorite 80s era fallen icons, Jeffrey Jones, as Dr. Walter Jenning, aka The Dark Overlord.
So, who would make your list of glowing cult film characters?