Throughout most of my childhood, I had vague memories of a strange film. A film featuring square-jawed protagonists, women of undying loyalty, villains beyond compare and burly, stocky men with golden wings. Over the years, I convinced myself that I imagined the whole thing. Nothing could possibly be that strange. Then one night I staggered back to a cheap motel in an “All America City” after a night of punk rock debauchery. My band mates sat in rapt attention around a tiny television. A brawny avian-man who did not fear death ordered his troops to dive. Apparently I hadn’t imagined Flash Gordon.
While directed by Mike Hodges (the man behind classics like Get Carter and Damian: Omen II), the film bears the unmistakable touch of larger-than-life producer Dino De Laurentiis. Sadly, Mr. De Laurentiis has left us, passing away at his Beverly Hills mansion this week. He was 91. Dino came from humble beginnings, the son of a spaghetti salesman. World War II interrupted his film studies. Once he started making films, however, Dino was prolific, putting his hands on over 150 pictures. His finger remained on the cultural pulse whether making high art like La Strada and Blue Velvet or high camp like Barbarella and Danger: Diabolik.
What’s most impressive about Dino is the sheer output of watchable, entertaining films that fall between the two extremes. If you grew up after the 1980s, chances are you have a favorite film in the De Laurentiis oeuvre. The man had his fingers in every pie imaginable: gritty ’70s crime dramas (Serpico and Death Wish), poorly-adapted Stephen King works (a slew of films in the 1980s, including the strangely before-its-time The Dead Zone) and teenybopper schlock (Hiding Out and Kuffs). Some films found homes in the late-night television circuit (Maximum Overdrive) while others stand as cultural touchstones (Conan the Barbarian).
Dino is Roger Corman with a bigger budget. Like Corman, his taste in directors speaks to a refined cinematic palate. In addition to Hodges, he worked with directors such as Mario Bava, Milos Foreman, David Cronenberg, David Lynch, Sam Raimi and Ridley Scott. For every De Laurentiis camp classic like Amityville II: The Possession there’s an indisputable artistic masterwork like Nights of Cabiria. Also like Corman, Dino branded his films from the producer’s desk. Regardless of artistic merit (or lack thereof) his films have certain look about them: cartoonish and soft-focus, somewhere between Jack Kirby and Brian De Palma.
Eyes roll every time I’m at the video store and I pick out a Dino picture. But my eyes light up every time I’m watching a movie and I see the man’s name in the opening credits. Hollywood is a little less colorful, or at least less pastel, due to his passing. Dino is a sui genris figure in international film, a little man whose big shoes can never be filled.