Summer Shocks 1987: Predator

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Where it all began…

No one trick or treats on the last day of school, no one carves jack o’ lanterns on July 4th, or goes on haunted hayrides in August.

When it comes to beloved macabre traditions, the fall is the season that gets all the attention. Thanks to the celebration of Halloween, the autumn months have always been indelibly associated with all things frightful. Summer, on the other hand, is ostensibly all that horror isn’t about – a golden time of warm weather, trips to the beach, fireworks, road trips and family picnics.

For those movie buffs that prefer the inside of their neighborhood cinemas (or, for some, the nighttime chill of drive-in theaters) to the blistering heat, however, the summer is the real witching season. Some believe that horror vacations in summer, waiting for fall to arrive, but box office history tells a different story.

Starting in 1975 when Jaws invented the modern blockbuster by teaching a generation to be afraid of the ocean, summer has been the best time of year to be scared. The fall can keep Halloween. It can keep the costumes, the candy, the Great Pumpkin, all of it – because summer has always had the better movies.

The 1980s were arguably the Golden Age of action films, a time in which fans of the genre were treated to hard-R cinematic symphonies of destruction on a regular basis. Among the cream of an exceptional crop was the instantly iconic sci-fi/action/horror hybrid Predator, the choice creature feature that audiences flocked to in the summer of 1987.

In Predator, an interstellar hunter arrives on Earth (as seen in an opening shot that echoes the opening of John Carpenter’s The Thing) and sets up shop in the fictional Central American hot spot of Vel Verde with the goal of hunting the most dangerous game of all – and it sure ain’t iguanas. Luckily for this mandible-mouthed manhunter from another world, he came to the right jungle looking for action. When it comes to finding suitable adversaries, he really hit the jackpot. If you want to say you hunted the biggest game on Earth, going up against Major Alan “Dutch” Schaeffer (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and his handpicked task force is the way to go.

With a story so simple it makes the most rudimentary comic book look like a William Faulkner novel, Predator is a movie that shows what a great director can do to elevate mediocre material. John McTiernan had only made one feature prior to Predator, the unusual and little-seen 1986 horror film Nomads (which he also wrote) starring Pierce Bronsan. But Predator is the movie that put him on the map and began a streak of action classics with the original Die Hard (1988) and The Hunt for Red October (1990) following.

While the basic premise of brothers Jim and John Thomas’ Predator screenplay involving an alien hunter is excellent (albeit predated by the 1980 film Without Warning), on the page the execution is lacking. Without McTiernan’s touch, and sans the impeccable contributions of production designer John Vallone, cinematographer Donald McAlpine, and composer Alan Silvestri (whose score here is an instant classic of the action genre), Predator would’ve been something more fit to bear the Cannon Films logo rather than be the major studio blockbuster that it was. This is a classic example of a B-level script finessed by the keen artistry of a talented crew into an A-class production.

Perhaps the most exceptional artistry of all behind Predatorwas that of the legendary Stan Winston (Terminator, Aliens, Jurassic Park) and his FX team (which included Screaming Mad George, Steve Wang and Robert Kurtzman), who were responsible for the bringing the film’s eponymous creature to life. Winston’s career had so many highpoints, it’s difficult to single out any one film or one creation as being the best but I’d argue that the Predator is his best original creature. Whether with its mask on or off, the Predator is one cool-looking monster. It sure helps that McTiernan gave Winston’s work such a perfect showcase to appear in but I think that the Predator would’ve stood out regardless and actor Kevin Peter Hall (who, ironically, also played the alien hunter in Without Warning) imbued the character with real personality.

Speaking of personalities, Predator has got that in spades. With a cast populated by the likes of Schwarzenegger, Carl Weathers, Jesse “The Body” Ventura, Sonny Landham, and Bill Duke, Predator boasts the most man’s man’s line-up permissible by law. This movie is a veritable Who’s Who of bad-asses. Among this elite company, Shane Black and Richard Chaves are two that could’ve easily stayed on the chopper but everyone else is a legitimate heavy-hitter. They’d even give The Wild Bunch a run for their money.

Being that Schwarzenegger is the star, naturally the film’s action is destined to come down to Dutch’s team being slaughtered, leaving he and the Predator to fight it out. But if this scenario were somehow for real, my money would be on either Blain (Jesse Ventura) or Billy (Sonny Landham) to be the last man standing. Dutch has the muscles, sure, but Blain and Billy – well, they’re in a whole other league of ass-kickers. If only McTiernan had opted to film the fight scene between Billy and the Predator – man, that could’ve been epic. To have that fight happen entirely off-screen always left me feeling just slightly gypped. And as the mini-gun toting Blain, Ventura’s death came too quickly, in my opinion (although on the upside, the moment in which Blain’s chest exploded did lead to a classic shout back to the screen among the crowd I saw this with back in ’87 – “The Body ain’t got no body!” – in reference to Ventura’s nickname from his professional wrestling days).

Had the Predator script been more fleshed out and more even-handed in allotting screen time to all its characters, Blain and Billy could’ve had an opportunity to become more than just promising contenders but hey, whatever. When it came to ’80s action cinema, Schwarzenegger was the McDonald’s of mayhem – a franchise in his own right – so it’s not surprising that this survival of the fittest tale was tailored to suit him.

As for the Predator himself, the technical sophistication and deadly capabilities of his extraterrestrial arsenal makes his hunt about as sporting as using a bazooka on a chiwawa. With the caliber of weapons at his disposal, it’s a safe bet that the Predator doesn’t often miss a target. As Peter says in Dawn of the Dead (1978) as he admires a high-priced rifle, “The only person who could miss with this gun is the sucker with the bread to buy it!” I’m not one to be cocky but I felt like even I could potentially take out the likes of Jesse Ventura if I was hiding sixty feet above him in a tree, had camouflage so sophisticated that I was invisible (the cloaking FX here may look rudimentary now but at the time, it was eye-popping), and blew a hole through his chest from behind. I’m just glad that once the Predator gets down to a one on one situation with Dutch, that he seems more up for a fair (ish) fight. If not, I would have had a hard time respecting his skills. I mean, if he’s not going to get his hands dirty in this so-called hunt, he might as well have just shot his targets from a spaceship miles above in orbit around the Earth.

As it turns out, The Predator isn’t just into smoking his targets from a distance and the climatic battle between Dutch and the Predator – the Rumble in the Jungle – is the film’s main event, staged to perfection by McTiernan. Dutch sheds all the baggage of civilization, stripping down to his primitive warrior self, using only brawn, tactical smarts, and Newton’s Law of Gravity to best his opponent. Dutch’s hard-fought win following his successful delivery of an enormous log onto the Predator’s head (I only wish the Predator had been standing on top of a giant “X” when it happened!) proves that ancient maxim of combat: Sometimes You Have To Drop Something Big On Your Enemy.

They say that some films come along at the right time and this is definitely true of Predator. Even though with its jungle setting, military fashions, and timeless hunter vs. prey storyline, it didn’t need to be set specifically in the ’80s, only in the filmmaking environment of the ’80s could Predator have been forged into the classic that it is. For one, the ’80s gave Predator its perfect cast. This film would’ve failed without larger than life actors able to sell lines like “I ain’t got time to bleed!” Had Predator been filmed in, say, the ‘70s it probably would’ve been Burt Reynolds or Roy Schneider saying those lines. Amazing actors, sure, but I think they really do have time to bleed. Jesse Ventura? No way. Predator called for the most macho cartoon characters the ’80s could offer and its cast did the decade proud.

Had Predator been made post-’80s, the FX (and the gore) would’ve been all CG, a back story to the Predator would’ve been shoehorned in and Anna (Elpidia Carrillo), the female lead, would’ve been developed into a love interest rather than just be baggage. Well, boo to all of that. Predator is a movie that thankfully came together at a time when the right resources were there and when filmmakers had better instincts about keeping dumb ideas out of their movies. The summer of ’87 wouldn’t have been the same without it.

Other horror films released in the summer of ’87:

Creepshow 2 (May 1st)

River’s Edge (May 8th)

The Gate (May 15th)

The Believers (June 10th)

The Witches of Eastwick (June 12th)

Jaws 4: The Revenge (July 17th)

The Lost Boys (July 31st)

The Monster Squad (August 14th)

House II: The Second Story (August 28th)

SUMMER OF 1979:

The Amityville Horror (Jeff Allard)

Phantasm (Ryan Turek)

SUMMER OF 1980:

Friday the 13th (Jeff Allard)

SUMMER OF 1981:

Deadly Blessing (Jeff Allard)

Wolfen (Ryan Turek)

SUMMER OF 1982:

Poltergeist (Jeff Allard)

Friday the 13th: Part 3 (Ryan Turek)

SUMMER OF 1983:

Psycho II (Jeff Allard)

SUMMER OF 1984:

Dreamscape (Jeff Allard)

SUMMER OF 1985:

Day of the Dead (Jeff Allard)

SUMMER OF 1986:

The Fly (Jeff Allard)






Source: Jeff Allard