From TCM Underground this month comes Stunts, a 1977 Robert Forster (RIP) action flick about a bunch of movie stunts gone wrong. Produced for a mere $600,000 as the inaugural feature for Robert Shaye’s New Line Pictures, Stunts was sold with one of the better drive-in movie trailer lines of all time: “Stunt Men. Their Business Is Danger, But Now Someone Is Making It [Dramatic Pause] Murder.” The film has a few laughs – some intentional, others not – and plenty of quality stunts. Watching it, however, left me wondering: why were there so many movies about stuntmen in the late 70s? And could you make something like Stunts today?
Could they make this today?
How many people died on movie sets last year, either from stunts gone wrong or general accidents?
You don’t know, do you? Honestly, it’d be really impressive and probably even a little strange if you did. A stunt-related fatality is the type of thing you hear about from time to time – like on The Walking Dead and Deadpool 2 – but never see quantified. The most recent number I’ve seen is that 43 people died on film and TV sets in the US between 1990 and 2016, and 37 people perished on international sets across that same period. That’s according to an analysis conducted by the Associated Press, which also discovered the studios are mostly sweeping it under the rug and paying out the lowest fines possible after fighting regulators tooth and nail.
It used to be worse. From 1980 to 1989, there were 40 fatalities on US film sets, 21 of them directly related to stunt work, but while the severity of the problem during that era led to many changes for the better the pendulum is swinging back the other way again. As THR argued in 2018, “Hollywood stuntpeople agree that the past several years have brought about a troubling change when it comes to safety.” The culprit: the content boom has led to far too many fly-by-night productions and tight schedules thus causing the money people to look the other way when it comes to safety.
What in the world does any of this have to do with Stunts? Nothing and everything, I guess.
Truthfully, I initially wrote down the introductory sentence “you could never make a movie like Stunts today,” but then paused to rethink that. The grindhouse/exploitation vibe of the late 70s which produced this film is long gone, that much is true, but Stunts general take on things – stunt work attracts daredevil types who know it all might end tomorrow and the industry’s increasing recklessness in that area isn’t helping- remains as true as ever. More people die on film sets than we realize, and a story like Stunts could certainly be redone today to highlight that fact.
Yeah, but it wouldn’t be nearly as charming.
I mean, for their title card they just used Robert Forster’s thumb!
Who does that?
Also, you probably still have no idea what this movie is actually about other than a bunch of stunt people dying in “accidents,” and back in ‘77, that’s all they needed you to know.
The actual plot, however, is as follows:
After his brother dies in a stunt gone wrong, Glen (Forster, newly on the downside of his career and only cast here because Don Stroud suffered a near-fatal crash right before the start of filming) joins the production to both work as a stunt man and investigate. Was his brother’s death truly an accident? Or was he sabotaged? Before long, unfortunately, additional fatal accidents occur, leaving Glen certain that someone is systematically killing the stunt people on this film. How long before he’s the next target?
This is both good and bad news for BJ (British actress Fiona Lewis, known at the time for UK films like Fearless Vampire Killers and Lizstomania and fresh off moving to the States and appearing in Playboy). She’s on set to observe and interview for a magazine article she’s penning about the stunt community, but with the number of deaths rising it’s turning into a murder mystery and maybe a Pulitzer. Sad about that tragedies, sure, but what a story!
Glen dismissively calls her “a writer from up East somewhere,” and doesn’t much care for her elitist attitude. However, she keeps popping up wherever he goes, her journalistic eye telling her that he’s up to something. Begrudgingly, they join forces, eventually uncovering a…
I so wanna say “conspiracy” right there, but that would be giving Glen and BJ too much credit. They don’t uncover much of anything other than each other. You bet your ass there’s a shoehorned love story going on here. It’s never particularly convincing, even with a mid-movie glorified music video in which Glen’s visit to the ocean to mourn his friends turns into a make-out session with BJ.
Along the way, they only finger one possible suspect meaning you know he’s a red herring, and then at the very end BJ literally just walks by someone who spills the beans. So, a quality mystery thriller this is not, yet it remains highly watchable as a series of entertaining stunts as well as a surprisingly engaging drama about a group of outsiders with a death wish.
Who needs a plot when you have stunts like these?
Glen’s little crew of stunt performers – a group which includes a married couple, an Italian lothario who always forgets to ask the latest girl at the bar if she’s married, and an over-eager assistant/trainee – are treated with respect by the other effects people. Glen, in fact, seems to be a rock star with that crowd.
The director, however, clearly thinks of all of them as glorified props, the producer is more than happy to use “x number of stung people died while making this movie” as a marketing angle, and people off the street seem to think anyone could be a stunt person. Plus, other than a sleeping-around actress (played by Joanna Cassidy) who can’t remember her lines no one from the actual cast ever seems to interact with the stunt crew. In fact, Stunts makes the interesting choice to never tell us what the movie within a movie is about. We just know it’s something that has very little story and an awful lot of stunts, each one more extreme than the last.
That suits Glen’s crew just fine. They live for the thrill and are bonded by their shared calling, even as they privately fear the industry’s constant need to one-up itself is going to end in more and more blood. They’re already used to it. We see the rituals they follow to mourn one of their own. Later, after yet another death we are gifted with a surprising bit of quality character work in a bar. A grieving stunt woman lashes out at everyone but cannot disagree when a colleague points out that she’ll back again tomorrow to chase the same high which led her husband to his untimely death.
The 70s Stunt Boom
Upon its release, Stunts likely stood out for the way it lifted the veil between the fantasy and production reality of Hollywood and offered a unique peek into the psyche of the people behind the best stunts. However, it was but the first of many to go there. As TCM summarized:
Modestly successful, Stunts not only launched New Line Cinema to bigger and better things but seemed to initiate a vogue for stuntman stories. Following close on the heels of Stunts was the Burt Reynolds romp Hooper (1978), Brian Trenchard-Smith’s Stunt Rock (1978), and Richard Rush’s cult favorite The Stunt Man (filmed in 1978, released in 1980), as well as the 1981-1986 ABC-TV series The Fall Guy, starring Lee Majors as a stuntman turned bounty hunter.
But why? Why was there such a run of late-70s movies about stunt people? Partially, it’s because the public was newly aware of stunt people at that time. According to the British Film Academy’s excellent history on this subject:
“The 1970s ushered in a sort of renaissance for stunt performers. The new technology being developed was embraced and led to the surge in disaster epics and to car chase/crash films. These movies were some of the biggest hits of the decade and meant that the demand for stunt performers was once again at a high. A huge breakthrough came in 1975 with The Master Gunfighter, where stuntmen and stuntwomen started to receive credits for their work. This led to an increased interest in stunt performers from the public and even turned stunt performers such as Hal Needham into celebrities.”
I’d hazard a guess that Evel Knievel’s influence here also cannot be overstated. His mainstreaming of stuntman daring and showmanship likely not only led even more people to seek work doing stunts for movies but also led more producers to think about bankrolling movies about those very same stunt people.
As such, the Hollywood of the 1970s was more than happy to bankroll a movie about stunt performers. Of all the titles mentioned, I’ve seen Stunts, The Stunt Man, and several episodes of The Fall Guy. Stunts feels like the least accomplished of the three, but I’m glad I gave it a shot. New Line eventually became the House that Freddy Built, but until now I had no idea it’s first project out of the gate was a fairly solid Robert Forster drive-in movie.
Where to Stream
I watched this on TCM. It’s also on Amazon Prime and YouTube right now. Check JustWatch for current availability.
What about you? What’s your favorite stunt film of the 70s, if, indeed, you have one? Is there another vintage Robert Forster flick I should watch next? Let me know in the comments.