1990's best (and worst) on video -- Why we loved ''Tremors'' and ''Vampire's Kiss'' but loathed ''Eternity'' and ''Ghosts Can't Do It''

Elvis: The Great Performances

What we tended to like or loathe on video in 1990 weren’t the big theatrical films — those hit the stores as familiar faces. Instead, it was the little-known treats and made-for-video specialty items that got a chance to bloom on the home screen, while the direct-to-tape dogs were always good for a few cheap laughs.


1. Elvis: The Great Performances (1990)
The finest antidotes to the bloated Presley myth are these two videos showcasing Elvis doing what he did best: singing. The tapes mix performances that have entered our collective unconscious (the Ed Sullivan shows in 1956, the ’68 comeback special), innocent kitsch from the Hollywood years, and rare off-stage moments, for a career overview that said as much about the price of fame as about Elvis Aaron himself. Required viewing.

2. Tremors (1990)
The home video success of Ron Underwood’s tongue-in-cheek throwback to ’50s creature-features caught some people by surprise, but it just means a movie can find an audience if it’s well made and entertaining. Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward lead a desert town into battle against killer worsens that are big, nasty — and hungry.

3. Carnival of Souls (1962)
The dead come back to haunt church organist Candace Hilligoss, and this eerie no-budget chiller came back from the grave to become one of the years most satisfying video revivals. The banal dreamscapes (it was shot in b&w around Lawrence, Kan.) remain surreally potent almost 30 years later.

4. Apartment Zero (1989)
Overlooked in theaters, this tale of a repressed young Argentinian (Colin Firth) who realizes his mysterious new hunk roommate (Hart Bochner) may be a hit man for the ruling dictatorship is creepy to the max. It’s a clammy, precise surprisingly deep psychological miniature from Martin Donovan, a director who bears watching in the future.

5. Vampire’s Kiss (1989)
Poisonous reviews greeted the theatrical release of this jet-black comedy — a sure sign that it was onto something. Nicolas Cage is amazing as an obnoxious New York yuppie who, in the throes of a breakdown, decides he’s becoming a vampire. The plot goes from the hilarious (Cage buys plastic fangs when real ones fail to materialized) to the disturbing: It’s a demented, high-camp remake of Polanski’s Repulsion.

6. The Wizard of Speed and Time (1988)
This delightful family film proves that unflagging invention and good vibes can compensate for lack of budget. Director Mike Jittlov, playing himself, is a special-effects geek trying to get a movie made in Hollywood. His fast-paced fable is like a mix of Pee-wee Herman, Gyro Gearloose, and Luigi Pirandello, with an overlay of childlike wonder.

7. Kill Me Again (1989)
Of the hundreds of modern-day thrillers that zip virtually straight to video, this is one of the few good ones. The plot’s just a rehash of ’40s film noir, but Val Kilmer (as a not-too-bright private eye) and his wife Joanne Whalley-Kilmer (as a double-crossing vixen) act like it’s Shakespeare.

8. The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
The Frankenstein monster of midnight movies may lose something without the celebratory audience participation that made it a late-’70s rite of passage, but what better excuse is there to invite all your friends over? Don’t forget the water pistols and toilet paper.

9. ”Outer Limits” Episodes (1963-65)
With 12 previously unreleased episodes hitting the shelves in 1990, a total of 37 hours of the most intelligent TV sci-fi of the ’60 is available. Moonstones, The Guests, and Behold, Eck! are some of the b&w gems here, and while the allegorical moralizing that hamstrung so many of these shows is bothersome, it still beats Rod Serling. ”There’s nothing wrong with your VCR….”

10. Race for Glory (1989)
This sleeper gives visceral excitement to an unlikely subject: international gonad prix motor cycle racing. The plot is stock (three American kids upset the European and Japanese factory teams with their homes made bikes) but the trackside atmospherics are superb and the behind the-scenes political machinations are intelligent.


1. Girlfriend from Hell (1990)
One of the years best titles was also the year’s worst movie, a witless teen horror-comedy about a wallflower possessed by a horny she-devil. Ugly, cheap, and shrill.

2. Stuff Stephanie in the Incinerator (1989)
Any movie with that title is begging to be put on a 10-Worst list, but talk about deceptive advertising! Not only are none of the characters named Stephanie, but no one gets stuffed in the incinerator! If you do rent this, you get what you deserve.

3. Night of the Wilding (1990)
Even if this grade-Z thriller were any good, its co-opting of the real-life Central Park jogger tragedy for the purpose of selling videos is simply inexcusable To be boycotted on principle alone.

4. Thunder & Mud (1990)
Heavy-meal music meets female mud wrestling. This is somebody’s idea of High Concept. Scary, huh?

5. Eternity (1990)
Jon Voight plays a newscaster who’s really a reincarnated medieval prince bent on saving the world from Armand Assante’s evil mogul. Voight also cowrote the script, so blame him for this vanity trip’s endless New Age sermonizing and wide-eyed megalomania.

6. The Girl in a Swing (1989)
Richard Adams’ novel about a London art dealer (Rupert Frazer) who fails for a mysterious girl (Meg Tilly) with spooks in her past never made much sense to begin with, but this film version is downright incomprehensible.

7. Berlin Blues (1989)
The worst pseudo-rock film since Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Opera singer Julia Migenes tries to recast herself as a pop singer in this Eurodisco update of Carmen. A triumph of bad taste.

8. Ghosts Can’t Do It (1990) And neither can John Derek: make a watchable movie, that is. Unremittingly vapid, this Bo-gus exercise gets a Bad Timing award for casting Donald Trump in a cameo as his own preening self.

9. Penn & Teller Get Killed (1989)
Penn Jillette and his silent partner, Teller, try to translate their postmodern magic act to film in this wretched movie debut. Further evidence of the raging vacuity of self-referential ”new comedy.”

10. See You in the Morning (1989)
Director Alan Pakula’s script reworks his own life’s ups and downs into the smarmiest psychobabble this side of Donahue. As a Manhattan psychiatrist, Jeff Bridges is so blitheringly sensitive to everyone’s needs that you’ll want to punch him out.

Most welcome technical advance

Enhanced yellow video subtitles on foreign releases such as Babette’s Feast destroyed overnight one of the main banes of film buffs — white subtitles on white backgrounds.

Best titles for lousy movies

Rabid Grannies
Mutant on the Bounty
Road Lawyers and Other Briefs

Most dubious environmental plea

Indio‘s distributors donated some profits to saving rain forests, but the message of the film is that environmentalists save the planet with AK-47s and hand grenades.

Neatest Video Box

The ghouls featured in the box art for Dead Pit have little green eyeballs that light up, but that’s nothing compared with the talking Frankenhooker box, which snarls, ”Wanna date?” when you press a hidden button.

Best bad dialogue

The competition included…Mortal Passions‘ nugget of domestic truth: ”No matter how bad things got at home, no one expects to get killed for it,” and Kurt Russell’s bizarre throwdown to a thug in Tango & Cash: If you want me, me and my ass are in the neighborhood.” But Savage Beach gets the nod for lumpiest line when the villain’s leather-clad Commie girlfriend breathlessly coos — and we quote: ”My ideology means more to me than fame and adulation.’

Elvis: The Great Performances
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