Cultish Club: Black Moon Rising (1986)

Welcome back to Cultish Club. Last month James looked at Slipstream, the post-apocalyptic adventure that Mark Hamill made after the original Star Wars trilogy. This time Paul chooses a cars-and-crime caper starring Tommy Lee Jones in the days before action adventures like The Fugitive and Men In Black catapulted him into superstardom.

Spoilers follow…

The early-to-mid 80s were a very formative time for me, especially in terms of my entertainment input. As well as the huge boom (brought on by the Star Wars films) in family-friendly action films, you couldn’t switch on the TV on any given Saturday without stumbling across a variety of imported American adventure television shows. Prepare yourself for nostalgia overload:

Manimal, The Dukes of Hazzard, The Fall Guy, CHiPs, Cover Shot (remember that and its tragic behind-the-scenes accident? Maybe I’ll save that story for another piece here in future), The A-Team (The A-Team, I see the A-Team),  etc were all fixtures on our family’s weekend teatime entertainment schedule.

However, one sub-genre seemed to briefly overshadow all the rest. The “Super Vehicle” show featured the likes of Hardcastle & McCormick, Automan, Airwolf, Street Hawk, The Highwayman where our heroes used all manner of hi-tech traffic to solve crimes and fight corruption. There is a pub called The Shire Horse, about a ten-minute walk from the house where I grew up and my brother Lee and I used to sneak through the hole in the fence into the beer garden on nice days – the reason? There was a huge helicopter shaped climbing frame (and still is, I am reliably informed by my old schoolfriend Tony who now calls The Shire Horse his local). Anyway, Lee and I would almost always play the same game, after climbing into the cockpit seats. You can probably guess what that game was. Go on… it’s a 50/50 chance!

If you picked Airwolf

WRONG! We used to play Blue Thunder. Lee liked to be Frank but I always preferred JAFO (I didn’t know what JAFO stood for – I was only nine). Anyway, one of my other favourite characters in that show was Bubba (as played by Police Academy‘s finest, the incomparable Bubba Smith) – I didn’t play as Bubba as he was found support and didn’t go in the shopper. But did you know that Bubba Smith was in another Super Vehicle property too?

Well until a few days ago, neither did I! Introducing Black Moon:

Yes, it looks like the recently announced PS5 on wheels with a spoiler and a go-faster stripe, but said stripe must have done the trick because this car (the fictional version at least) can do up to 300 miles per hour! Based on a real one-off automobile, the Wingho Concordia II became the star of a rare example of a Super Vehicle at the movies (Firefox and the original Blue Thunder film notwithstanding). As there was only one, which was borrowed and adapted for the driving shots, a replica of the car had to be constructed for the stunt work, from a mould fitted over a Volkswagen chassis. All interior shots of the care used an especially constructed duplicate (with computery additions).

Clearly cashing in on the soon-to-be-ending Knight Rider, the John Carpenter penned Black Moon Rising tells the story of, well, basically, events spiralling out of control due to unfortunate timing. Tommy Lee Jones plays Quint, a thief hired by the FBI to steal some state evidence on microfilm. Cornered and not wanting his swag to be taken by disreputable types (because he is A Thief With A Conscience™), he hides the film in the back of the titular experimental water-powered wonder car, which just happens to have stopped in the same gas station as him. However, in the grand tradition of One Of Our Dinosaurs Is Missing, the car itself is then stolen by a car theft ring, headed up by Robert Vaughan’s Ryland.

Enter our other star, Linda Hamilton, fresh from escaping a robot assassin from the future, as Nina, a Car Thief With Somewhat Less Of A Conscience And Fairly Unconvincing Wig™.

Quint needs that car, but so does Ryland. The film’s other villain, Ringer, played by the lead singer of punk band Fear, Lee Ving, needs the microfilm, but so do the FBI, and the car’s creators just want the whole nightmare to be over and have their toy back. Hi-tech Grand Theft Auto style shenanigans ensue (with a little bit of rumpy-pumpy thrown in for good measure). Had I seen this as a kid, I would have LOVED it (well, except for the sex scene, during which I would have covered my eyes, asking if it was over yet). Car chases, fistfights, gunfights, Bubba Smith, this film has it all! I mean, just look at the poster used to publicise it in Germany:

OK, so yes, this poster does appear to have ripped off John Alvin’s Blade Runner one-sheet, with its depiction of a neon-clad city shrouded in permanent night, and with buildings so tall they need spaceships for elevators. But in reality, as is often the case, especially with 80s movies, the poster exaggerates the film’s content quite a lot, as well as giving away the movie’s big climactic action sequence when a cornered (again) Quint and Nina (now having dropped that rubbish hairpiece and reverted to a more familiar Terminator-esque look) escape in a spectacular sequence. The practical effects of that sequence still look great and stand up today. I did find myself questioning if they had somehow successfully jumped a real car between two actual skyscrapers (health and safety not being what it is on today’s film sets). But no, it was models. Very impressive looking models which were shot in such a way that you get a real sense of scale.

To make the jump through the window look as realistic as possible, stunt coordinator Bud Davis made the unusual decision to drive the car through real window glass rather than the standard sugar glass as favoured by stunt performers. The reason he wanted normal glass was that when it breaks, it shatters into large, uneven shards which would look more impressive in slow motion. Obviously that was far more dangerous than your usual stunt meaning that he had to wear a crash helmet and body armour for the stunt.

The casting of Jones as the headline star was an unusual move at the time as he wasn’t best known for action movies, having gained critical acclaim early in the decade as country singer Loretta Lynn’s husband Doolittle in The Coal Miner’s Daughter – a film he still holds very dear and enjoys watching. On the casting of Jones, director Harley Cokliss said:

“Tommy has brought, I would say, his physicality, because he moves great. He’s a very physical actor and there’s a lot of stunt work, a lot of fights. It’s a physical business.”

Bubba Smith plays Quint’s FBI handler, Agent Johnson. Less than a decade out of the big-league football business and, following the success of his then two Police Academy films and the Blue Thunder series, Smith was looking for an interesting role. However, it was not so much the film as it’s star that attracted him:

“When they told me who was starring in it, and I said ‘Sure’, I didn’t even ask them about the money, I just wanted a chance to work with [Jones] just to learn… I look at this business the same as I looked at football; the better players that you play against, the better you get.”

Hamilton, looking for a challenge, jumped at the chance to join the film’s cast for an unusual reason: She was afraid of cars and saw the role as a way to tackle that fear head-on. And she does spend a LOT of time driving, or sitting in cars so hopefully that therapy worked for her!

I mentioned before that this was written by John Carpenter – yes, THAT John Carpenter. He finished the script off while working on Big Trouble In Little China and, while that was where his involvement in the project ended, you can feel his presence. Black Moon Rising explores similar themes and ideas present in many other Carpenter films. For starters, you have the grizzled action hero forced into a job he doesn’t want to do (Escape From New York) by duplicitous government agents (Starman). You can also see hints of where Carpenter would take his next project, They Live, with the evil Ryland Corporation pulling the strings. Overall though, this was Carpenter’s “My car is stolen and I’m going to get it back” movie. He freely admits, though, to never having seen the film!

Carpenter’s influence can also be felt in the music, provided by Lalo Schifrin (perhaps best known for the Mission: Impossible theme). Eschewing his preferred medium of Jazz, he turned to Carpenter’s favoured minimalist-synth for Black Moon Rising‘s score although a hint of jazz saxophone does creep back in during the love scene! Given the current taste for synthwave, it’s surprising that a soundtrack album for Black Moon Rising has never been issued. However, Schifrin did return to the film for a new feature about the music of the film on last year’s Blu-ray release by Arrow.

Overall, Black Moon Rising is a fascinating look back at that moment-in-time when Super Vehicles reigned supreme. It is very 80s (which if you know me, you know I can’t resist. But it does have its flaws – the titular car features in it for a lot less time than I would have liked, and the plot seems simultaneously simplistic and over complicated. On the whole, though, it’s a silly, exciting, stylish caper very reminiscent of other mid-80s action films (Raw Deal and Cobra spring instantly to mind). Most importantly of all though, it’s a whole lot of fun and you’ll find yourself grinning from ear to ear after 90 minutes of automobile mayhem.

Black Moon Rising is available to buy now on Blu-ray from Arrow Video and also to stream on Arrow’s Amazon Prime channel.

Join us again as we delve into more films you’d forgotten or didn’t even know existed, but which rightfully deserve their induction into the Cultish Club!

Paul Childs

As well as writing for Den of Geek and Your Truth, Paul also runs Badgers Crossing, a site for ghost stories. He loves the 1980s and thanks to a keen interest in Public Information Films he has never been electrocuted or set himself on fire.

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