See How They Glow!

A recent conversation with Pax and Jaime led me to rewatching the 1985 post-blaxsploitation kung fu epic, The Last Dragon, the other night and it occurred to me that there was an odd but interesting deluge of back-lit animation used in cult-y flicks from the 80s.  If you aren’t familiar with The Last Dragon, the story revolves around Bruce Leroy, a young black martial artist seeking to attain kung fu enlightenment.  This higher state is marked by exuding the Glow, as referenced in Dwight David’s titular song for the film:

“There’s a power deep inside you, an inner strength, You’ll find in time of need.  The Glow…”

Of course, this is literal, and in a key scene in the flick Bruce Leroy shines with a “soul glow” that puts all the shiny hair in Coming to America to shame.  This got me thinking about the dated, yet still awesome, special effect of using back-lit animation to highlight characters in 80s flicks.  So I decided to compile a list of my five favorite movies that feature glowing characters.  Certainly not an exhaustive list, these are just the five that are currently illuminating the dark recesses of my mind with their awesome luster.  to paraphrase Jack Palance’s character from Hawk, The Slayer, let’s see how they glow!

#5 – The Last Dragon (1985)

I can’t help but kick off this list with the film that attracted me to the idea (like a moth to a…well you get the idea), The Last Dragon.

As I mentioned above, the film centers on Bruce Leroy (played by martial artist Taimak), but also features a bevy of eccentric, awesome, and eccentrically awesome characters including Julius J. Carry III as Sho’Nuff (The Shogun of Harlem), Christopher Murney as skeezy Eddie Arkadian (the king of the Arcades), Glen Eaton (as Leroy’s Bruce Lee-obsessed protégé Johnny Yu), Vanity as Laura Charles (the pop singer/veejay who seems to want nothing more than to bed the hero), and a very young Ernie Reyes Jr!  If the film wasn’t cool enough by featuring an albino Mr. T clone, break dancing as a means of escaping bondage, and a ton of karate action, then it becomes legendary when in the climatic battle sequence Sho’Nuff and Bruce Leroy literally glow with the intensity of their kicks and punches.

#4 – Xanadu (1980)

Coming in at the next spot is a film that I would be ashamed not to mention in this context, as it’s quite possibly the one that started this iridescent 80s trend, Xanadu from 1980…

Starring Olivia Newton-John, Michael Beck, and Gene Kelly (in his final role shown on the silver screen), the film follows the exploits of Sonny Malone (Beck), a dreamer and artist who falls in love with Kira (Newton-John), one of the nine Olympian Muses.  There is back-lit animation aplenty in this flick, all set to the glorious music of E.L.O. and Olivia Newton-John.  In fact, though it was a box office failure upon its initial release, the film is, in a way, the blueprint for the look and feel of the late 70s/early 80s.  Roller skates, short shorts, Lycra, neon, awkward dance sequences, singing longingly to the camera, and of course, back-lit glowing characters peppered throughout the film.

#3 – TRON (1982)

For the middle spot I had to go with the 1982 Disney computer-world epic, Tron

Directed by Steve Lisberger, a pioneer in the art of back-lit animation, Tron barely features any characters that aren’t glowing bright blue, red or purple.  In fact if there were an award given to the film that featured the most glowing characters, Tron would probably be the uncontested recipient for life.  I feel slightly weird sticking this film in the middle of the pack, but I’d be willing to bet it’s the first film that most people would pick and therefore it would be slightly anticlimactic if it topped this list.

#2 – Young Einstein (1988)

In the number two spot, sits one of my favorite 80s era alternate history biographies, 1988′s Young Einstein!

Though the flick is light on back-lit animation, writer/director/star Yahoo Serious does use this technique in a very explosive way.  Serious plays the titular young Einstein, the genius Tasmanian son of an apple farmer (and sometimes beer brewer), who discovers the theory of relativity (and carbonation) after splitting the very first beer atom.  He heads to the mainland to seek a patent for his discovery, and along the way all sorts of weird hilarity ensues including the penultimate sequence in which Einstein uses a homemade electric guitar to siphon off the excess energy created by a malfunctioning beer-atom-splitter, averting the world’s first atomic meltdown.  Let’s just say that he takes on a little more than he can handle and for a couple of seconds he sports a glorious atomic glow!

#1 – Howard the Duck (1986)

Coming in at the top of my list is the much maligned Lucasfilm production, Howard the Duck from 1986…

Howard the Duck is one of those flicks that tends to really polarize film goers (either they hate it, or love to hate it, it seems), but I remember sitting alone in a darkened theater and loving it as the very first frames ran across the screen.  The movie combines so much of what I love about the 80s, awesome practical effects, stop motion animation, zany off-the-wall comedy, Lea Thompson in sleepwear, comic books, and of course, glowing characters thanks to the wonder of back-lit animation.  Not only does it feature a glowing character, but one of my favorite 80s era fallen icons, Jeffrey Jones, as Dr. Walter Jenning, aka The Dark Overlord.

So, who would make your list of glowing cult film characters?

  • ShezCrafti

    Pretty much the entirety of Masters of the Universe.

    • Shawn Robare

      I need to see that flick again. One of the few from the 80s that I don’t own for some reason…

      • ShezCrafti
        • Shawn Robare

          And there went any hope of getting to bed before midnight…

        • Jason G

          Nice. Have been wanting to watch again for
          posterity’s sake.

  • Dex

    I can see your reasoning behind slotting Tron in the middle. On the other hand, I’m a grid junkie and I doubt there has been a movie since that has had as much glow to it.

    • Shawn Robare

      Yeah, like I mentioned in the piece, it would win the award of most glowing characters for ever!

  • JL Watkins

    Ghostbusters would definitely be on my list. It’s hard to find a more memorable glowing 80′s character than Slimer.

    • Shawn Robare

      Too true. Now that I’m thinking about it, does Gozer glow at any point or does she just shoot the purple/blue lightening from her hands…?

    • Jason G

      I concur. But Ghostbusters is one of my favorites so I’d put it in just about any list that would fit. :-)

  • bizarrojimmyolsen

    Tron should definitely be at the top of the list.

    How about Chevy Chase from Modern Problems? Has there ever been such an insane movie.

    • Paxton Holley

      Modern Problems is awesome. That definitely needs to be on CFC’s “to do” list.

      • Shawn Robare

        Heck Yes!

        • Paxton Holley

          I don’t know how I managed to see Doctor Detroit back in the day. Seriously, where did that come from? And Modern Problems as well. It’s been one of my favs for years, but I don’t remember seeing it for the first time.

          And Neighbors, with John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd. Just weird, weird stuff with highly popular actors.

          I think my dad was a big SNL fan so we watched all of this stuff. He took me to see Vacation in the theater. I WAS NINE YEARS OLD!!!

          • Shawn Robare

            Yup, same here. Watched The World According to Garp with my mom when I was I was 7 (I’m assuming because it had Mork in it), and now I have a hard time watching it with my wife?!?

    • Shawn Robare

      You know, one of the best side effects of working on this podcast and site is that I’m finally getting off my butt and getting to movie recommendations. I have yet to see Modern Problems. There’s a handful of flicks from SCTV/SNL alumni from the 80s that I totally missed out on for one reason or another (just recently caught Doctor Detroit for the first time), and MP is one of my Chevy Chase to watch flicks. Thanks for reminding me!

  • ShezCrafti

    Doesn’t The Frighteners use backlit animation too?

    • Shawn Robare

      Yup, definitely on the ghosts. By the by, Jim Fyfe (the nerdy ghost) totally changed my perspective on life as a kid with his series of “behind the advertising” specials on HBO called Buy Me That:

  • Shawn Robare

    Also, a couple of my alternates were Ghostbusters II (for Vigo and Peter MacNicol’s characters) and Conner McCloud from the final sequence in Highlander…

    • Paxton Holley

      While I don’t love Howard the Duck, I love everything about Jeffrey Jones’ Overlord character.

      • Shawn Robare

        YES! Of course I’ll always have a soft spot for the disturbing romance between an alien duck and a human girl. I did not need to see the contents of his wallet lets just say…


    Big Trouble in Little China – Light coming out of his Mouth

    • Shawn Robare

      Love this flick! For some reason I had memories of Egg Shen and Lo Pan glowing (themselves) during their wizard samurai battle, but alas it was just the avatars. That scene with Lo Pan shooting the light out of hs mouth and eyes is pretty badass though!


    I was watching an episode of The Aquabats Supershow today called The Haunted Battle Tram and there was a few Glowing ghost characters and what seemed to be a tribute to Ghostbusters with a hot girl ghost and people getting slimed and Poltergeist with Bat Commander being trapped inside a TV screen.I think The Aquabats is Hilarious, Regular Show and even The Amazing world of Gumball are modern retro classics.

    • Shawn Robare

      I need to catch some more episodes of the Aquabats show. I just noticed it on Netflix streaming recently. Love that band. As for Regular Show, I haven’t seen it yet, though I’ve heard a lot of great things. I’ve also heard there are a lot of retro references in Gravity Falls…

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  • Deanna Duncan

    I always liked the back lit animation in the movie Xanadu…it went with the music. I know the movie was cheesy…but it had a GREAT soundtrack!

    • Shawn Robare