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This week marks the beginning of The Independent Picture House’s Summer of ’84 series, celebrating the 40th anniversary of a remarkable run of films that range from blockbusters to quirky hidden gems. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom starts screening Thursday, May 23, at IPH. The critic Roger Ebert called it one of the great “Bruised Forearm Movies” — “the kind of movie where your date is always grabbing your forearm in a viselike grip, as unbearable excitement unfolds on the screen.” Landon Huneycutt explores why this iconic film still captivates audiences.

When Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom opened in May 1984, it stirred controversy, as did Gremlins a month later, over scenes that some parents complained were too violent. That prompted the Motion Picture Association to insert a new rating between PG and R, called PG-13, which warned that “some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.” (Red Dawn, another film in our series, was the first to carry that rating when it came out in July 1984.) Temple of Doom opens with the song and dance number “Anything Goes,” and it couldn’t be a truer statement. What follows is a poisoning, a shootout, a chase sequence and a plane crash, all within the first 20 minutes. Temple of Doom, like its predecessor Raiders of the Lost Ark, is an ode to serials and pulp that feels like Mort Kunstler’s work come to life. 

Using incredibly detailed storyboards, director Steven Spielberg displays a precision here that is among the best in his filmography. Spielberg and cinematographer Douglas Slocombe, both geniuses of the master shot, allow the action to flourish in extended shots that are wide enough to capture both the action and the setting. Cuts aren’t used to mask poor choreography but rather to emphasize each action. Their work is both economical and incredible in its technical ability to convey so much in so few setups. The camera often pans to capture action within a single shot, but never in a showy or distracting way.

Temple of Doom is set in 1935, a year before Raiders, to avoid using Nazis as the antagonists once again. Instead we have the Thuggee cult in India, whose members have taken a sacred stone and all the children from a village that Indiana Jones stumbles upon after an over-the-top chase sequence. Along with orphan Short Round and lounge singer Willie Scott, Indy journeys to Pankot Palace to retrieve the stone and the children. 

The film is propulsive in its pacing, with interludes between set pieces to flesh out the characters. Spielberg isn’t bored with what’s between the expansive set pieces. The flirtatious back-and-forth between Indiana Jones and Willie is sweet and goofy. Great humor is found in the shock of the cultural disconnect between the three main characters and the cult. The visual and physical humor, alongside dialogue akin to a Howard Hawks screwball comedy, is integrated into the action. The film doesn’t disrespect the audience by interrupting the tension to deliver a lame one-liner, as many contemporary movies do. Temple of Doom is filled with tremendous performances from the ever-charismatic Harrison Ford as Indy, Kate Capshaw as the klutzy lounge singer unwillingly dragged into the adventure, Ke Huy Quan as Indy’s loyal and brave sidekick Short Round and Amrish Puri as the villain Mola Ram, who wishes to bring about the reign of Kali, Goddess of Death.

Executive producer George Lucas — who created the series — and Spielberg were going through relationship breakups at the time, which they have credited for the grim tone of the film. Temple of Doom is the gonzo entry in both the series and in Spielberg’s filmography, with sacrifices, alligators ripping people apart — action that is simultaneously grotesque and cartoonish, qualities that play off each other and are heightened throughout the film.

In contemporary cinema, it is hard to imagine an auteur-driven blockbuster this unhinged and idiosyncratic that could secure such a budget and studio backing. Aside from a few directed by auteurs such as Gore Verbinski, James Cameron and George Miller, modern blockbusters are little more than pre-visualized, weightless products that feel more like content than a film. With the Summer of ’84 series, The Independent Picture House is bringing audiences back to when cinema, both independent and mainstream, was daring. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom starts screening Thursday, May 23.


When not working at IPH, Landon Huneycutt obsesses over the works of Buster Keaton, Yasujiro Ozu and Johnnie To.
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