Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these misguided efforts for what they fail at achieving and what they manage to do right.
This week: Cloak & Dagger
The burst of creativity from which most of the movies we look at here coincides with the arrival of home video game consoles. Though not yet the powerhouse industry it is today, video games fascinated Hollywood as a new frontier and as a potential transmedia event before the word had ever been coined. Not yet a source of mediocre pictures, video games offered a strange tie-in potential as projects could be developed side by side and intrigue audiences with this new uncharted entertainment domain. A handful of films like Tron and The Last Starfighter attempted to create situations in which their characters found themselves inside the game itself. But only one film ever made the actual game people could play in real life a key part of the plot. That film was, of course, Cloak & Dagger.
As mentioned when we talked about Psycho II, director Richard Franklin and writer Tom Holland would follow up that sequel with another film for Universal. Franklin, for his able talents, was a craftsman director; that is, a skilled director without a singular style who attuned his work to the script. These sorts of directors no longer exist in Hollywood, where every filmmaker is expected to be a “visionary” who hammers the script to his liking instead of taking a script and finding its strengths. In this case, Franklin seems to be closer to auteur as he initiated the project as a “thriller for kids.” Franklin and Holland used the Cornell Woolrich story “The Boy Cried Murder,” which Universal happened to own at the time, as their source material. And it is within the directorial intent of a “thriller for kids” that we find the source of the cheese.
The plot concerns San Antonio local Davey Osborne (Henry Thomas). His father Hal (Dabney Coleman) works as an air traffic controller at a nearby Air Force Base, leaving Davey alone much of the time. As a latch-key kid of the 1980s, he fixates on a video and tabletop role playing game franchise known as Cloak & Dagger. The arcade cabinet, Atari 5200 game and RPG feature the adventures of superspy Jack Flack. Fascinated with its concept of espionage, Davey plays spy games with his neighbor Kim (Christina Nigra) or talks to Flack directly as an imaginary friend (also played by Coleman). His games become deadly real when he happens to witness a murder. The victim hands him a Cloak & Dagger cartridge and tells him to get it to the FBI. Soon, he and Kim are chased by spies, but Jack appears to Davey and helps him out of a lot of scrapes until one of Jack’s plans leads Davey into shooting one of the spies. Angry that Jack tricked him into murdering the spy, Davey refuses to play with his imaginary friend and Jack appears to die.
Despite the lack of Jack’s guidance, Davey manages to save Kim from the spies and track down an elderly couple who not only turn out to be working with the spies, but spirited away the cartridge from Davey. The couple finally kidnap him and demand a plane and a pilot to fly them out of the country. Hal volunteers despite the fact Davey has the bomb meant to kill Kim. The finale is explosive.
And if it seems like I’m giving away all the key plot details, that’s okay because the plot isn’t the charm. It’s a fairly standard “Man Who Knew Too Much” style plot weaved around some video game concepts and early 80s imagery. No, the legitimate charm here is generated by Thomas and Coleman, who make a great double act as Davey and Jack. Granted, Davey is very much a recreation of Thomas’s breakout role, Elliott, in E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. He cries, he demands to be heard, and he grumbles when ignored with a rarely believably for kids in the early 1980s. Some may credit Steven Spielberg with getting that performance out of him in E.T., but Cloak & Dagger proves Thomas had some that within him all along. Coleman, meanwhile, was one of the great mid-list actors of the era. Here, he plays Jack with a brash swagger and Hal with a button-down milquetoast quality which probably left many children angry at Hal for most of the movie’s runtime.
Of course, that dual-role will be key to something I will get to soon.
The cheese factor comes from the fact Franklin’s “thriller for kids” is a fairly legit thriller. Maybe even a little too thrilling for young kids. The murder Davey witnesses at the start is surprisingly bloody and serious despite the more light-hearted sound of the underscore provided by The Road Warrior‘s Brian May. The subsequent death of Davey’s grown-up pal Morris (an almost unrecognizable William Forsythe) is a fairly bloodless moment in which Davey discovers his corpse in the trunk of car, but would no doubt be objectionable today. In fact, much of the cheese comes from the way the film has aged. While a boy consistently being dismissed while claiming to have seen a murder or being chased by men with murderous intent — to say nothing of the boy actually killing a man — might seem like family fare in 1984, it sounds like the beginning of a lot of trauma 34 years on.
Then again, the way the film introduces Jack as an imaginary friend reads as though Davey has already gone through some trauma to be 11 years old and projecting a G.I. Joe-esque surrogate father into his thoughts. From his first appearance, Davey is considered odd by those around him. The movie even suggests Jack started to appear after the death of his Davey’s mother some months before the story beings. But it is his mental state which allows him to survive the adventure and, quite possibly, the trauma of the film’s final moments.
As mentioned above, Hal happens to be in the Air Force, so he volunteers to fly the plane for the elderly spies. He introduces himself as Jack Flack and manages to get Davey off the plane before it explodes. Davey is in tears looking at the fiery wreckage, but then he sees the silhouette of a man emerging from the flames. As the man gets closer, Davey sees Jack. But after another moment, it turns out to be Hal completely unharmed from the blast. The two hug as Davey asks how he escaped. Hal says “Jack Flack always escapes.” Davey responds that he no longer needs Jack because he has his father. The screen fades to black and the credits slowly roll. Now, some people will tell you this ending is meant to suggest that Davey finally sees his milquetoast absentee father as a hero. To modern eyes, it is easy to read the ending as the total collapse of Davey’s psyche after being chased by spies and watching his father die in an explosion. The fact the film ends there and offers no scene of the two playing Cloak & Dagger to reveal their lives resumed a more normal, but improved pattern only aids the horrific interpretation.
Remember how this is suppose to be a “thriller for kids?” Welcome to cheesetown as Franklin’s intent opens the film up to a surprisingly dark interpretation of a fairly forgotten 80s flick. Aiding that cheese is the aforementioned May score, which tends to keep a children-at-play atmosphere despite far longer than it should. It is possible this was his instruction as Franklin’s film is far more serious than anyone — including the director — intended. And entertaining movies despite directorial intent is our working definition of cheese.
Cloak & Dagger is available for rent on the usual streaming platforms and as a budget DVD.