Color, 1984, 95 mins. 50 secs.
Directed by Richard Franklin
Starring Henry Thomas, Dabney Coleman, Michael Murphy, Christina Nigra, John McIntire, Jeanette Nolan, Tim Rossovich, William Forsythe
Vinegar Syndrome (UHD & Blu-ray) (US R0/RA 4K/HD), Universal (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
In many ways, 1984's Cloak & Dagger seems like the inevitable result of the reteaming of director Richard Franklin and screenwriter Tom Holland after their surprisingly excellent prior film, 1983's Psycho II. Always fond of a good "boy who cried wolf" story, Holland used the idea the same year for the less warmly received but much nuttier Scream for Help and would steer it into flat-out supernatural territory with his first two directorial efforts, Fright Night and Child's Play. One of the most overt Hitchcock disciples, Franklin took a page here from the Master of Suspense's espionage tales like The 39 Steps, Foreign Correspondent, and Saboteur, delivering a kid's spy adventure yarn that goes darker than expected in a few spots. The final product turned out to be very difficult for Universal to market (as witnessed by their absurdly overwritten poster design), but the film built up a reasonable cult following among young Gen-Xers thanks to frequent cable TV play and its easy availability on VHS. In a nice surprise, Vinegar Syndrome has given the film the deluxe treatment it deserves with a lavish (and insanely well-packaged) release featuring UHD and Blu-ray discs presenting the film looking better than it did even in first-run theaters.
Following the death of his mother, 11-year-old Davey Osborne (E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial's Thomas) finds escape in the multimedia adventures of daring super spy Jack Flack (Coleman), who features in the video game Cloak & Dagger. In fact, Davey even interacts with his presumably imaginary friend version of Flack, something that's causing a rift with his pilot dad, Hal (also Coleman). With his friend Kim (Twilight Zone: The Movie's Nigra), he ends up taking a day trip to downtown San Antonio to visit the game headquarters just in time for Davey to witness the shooting of an FBI officer. The dying man hands Davey a cartridge of the Cloak & Dagger game containing top secret information to be given only to the feds, but that's easier said than done when no trace of the murder can be found by the authorities. Guided by Jack Flack, Davey ends up on the run when even his own father doesn't believe that there are ruthless enemies of the United States at work right in plain view.
An afternoon ritual for so many '80s kids and a pivotal entry in the early video game wave (along with Tron, The Last Starfighter, WarGames, Nightmares, etc.), Cloak & Dagger is an odd, Atari-plugging beast from today's perspective with its swirling of Cold War thrills, kid-friendly comedy, sentimental family drama, and sometimes jarring violence with a few more gun deaths than you'd expect. It isn't close to the harrowing kindertrauma levels of The Neverending Story or Return to Oz, but there's definitely no way a PG-rated film would include tykes involved in this kind of activity today. The film is usually cited as an adaptation of Cornell Woolrich's "The Boy Who Cried Murder" (filmed earlier as The Window, also the original script title for this film), though the resemblance is minimal apart from the general idea of a kid confronting skepticism after witnessing a murder. Thomas was at the peak of his Hollywood career at the time during his run of Universal films (also including Raggedy Man), and as always he's a screen natural you root for all the way. The casting otherwise goes largely against expectation, with the normally more wholesome Michael Murphy cast as a primary villain and the more brittle Coleman (fresh off of WarGames, of course) pulling double duty all the way to a (supernatural-ish) conclusion that can be a deal breaker for some viewers. You also get fun roles for regular heavy Tim Rossovich (Looker) and scene-stealing character actors Jeanette Nolan (the regular voice of Mrs. Bates in the Psycho series) and John McIntyre, plus brief bits by a young Louie Anderson and Nicholas Guest. Less noteworthy but occasionally interesting is the score by regular Aussie composer Brian May, who had worked on Franklin's Road Games before and would soon do another Thomas film after this, The Quest. And would you believe this was produced by none other than Allan Carr (Grease, Can't Stop the Music), who would set the Oscars and his career on fire five years later.
Despite its popularity on TV, Cloak & Dagger took a long time to get anything better than the zero-effort DVD from Universal. An HD master in the mid-'00s did turn up a few times on channels like Cinemax, but the 2022 Vinegar Syndrome edition sports a fresh 4K scan from the 35mm original camera negative. It looks superb here with the UHD in particular benefiting from HDR to pull a richer, wider look from the film with the frequent vibrant reds and greens in particular looking terrific. Detail is immaculate throughout and no damage is evident at all. The DTS-HD MA 2.0 English track (with optional English SDH subtitles) is very effective and splits to surround quite well with a lot of dramatic channel separation throughout. Both discs feature a lively new audio commentary with Holland (who also does great chat tracks) and filmmaker Joe Lynch who talk about the whole Atari angle, the Hitchcock influence, casting and writing for kids, the extreme tension between Franklin and Coleman (which the latter was quite vocal about later), and the San Antonio shooting locations. The Blu-ray features all of the video extras starting with "Konami Codes & Cult Classics: Programming Cloak & Dagger" (28m22s) featuring Holland, Murphy, casting director Jackie Burch, art director Todd Hallowell, second assistant director Alan Curtiss, and actress Tammy Hyler talking about the state of their careers at the time and their memories of the shoot. In "Loud and Clear" (14m20s), Thomas talks about making this film right after Misunderstood and making the film in his hometown "being treated like a star" for the first time, with his own interest in video and role-playing games making it a personal project of sorts. Then you get an archival '80s TV interview with Franklin (5m8s) and a 2001 Q&A (13m36s) covering his own dissatisfaction with the "miscast" Coleman, his great satisfaction with Thomas' performance, the Hollywood "gaslighting" he encountered during the experience, and some very amusing comments about Carr among many other topics. Also included are a lengthy gallery (4m23s) of production and promotional photos, two TV spots, a 4m19s comparison of the locations then and now, and a 30m18s Vintage Arcade Gal history of the tie-in arcade game, the preceding Firefox game, and how the unrelated Atari Agent X spy game got rebranded into the one the public eventually got. The package also comes with a 40-page book featuring an additional Holland interview and an essay about the film's many pop culture aspects by Justin LaLiberty.
Reviewed on June 25, 2022.