VHS Revival parties hard with the Bride of Frankenweiner
Weird Science may not be as memorable as Planes, Trains and Automobiles, or as iconic as The Breakfast Club, but it is still one of filmmaker John Hughes’ finest, and also one of his funniest. Hughes had a knack for appealing to teenagers during his 80s pomp, with a profound understanding of what makes them tick, a fact prevalent in the dialogue he writes, which is crude, irreverent but wholly relatable, speaking to rambunctious adolescents on their level rather than patronising them with textbook morality plays. His films may promote unlikely wish fulfilment but they more than make up for it in understanding. Hughes understood the way kids think and feel, and, perhaps more crucially, the ways and words they use to communicate and the various pressures of a pre-adult existence. He wrote as a kid for kids, something the cast of Weird Science would later attest to, and it’s utterly infectious.
Weird Science is the story of a couple of high school losers named Gary and Wyatt who decide to make a girl on their computer after finally accepting the fact that no mortal female will look at them twice. They are skinny and awkward in an environment saturated with burgeoning muscles and nubile beauty, and as their hormones drip from their brows they turn borderline perverse in their quest for female companionship, resorting to wearing bras on their heads as they give birth to the woman of their dreams in a manner befitting of the most depraved corners of Dr Frankenstein’s laboratory. The woman in question, one of the most beautiful creatures to ever grace god’s green Earth, is more than just eye candy, both the character and the actress who plays her. Kelly LeBrock may have been a last-minute stand-in and glorified catwalk model, but she absolutely owns the part of feisty surrogate sister Lisa, embracing the role with an effortlessness you rarely see in model-come-actors. Asides from her obvious aesthetic qualities, LeBrock is a joy to behold in a film that has joy in its DNA, her character subverting convention in an industry built on beauty discrimination.
In Lisa, Gary and Wyatt set out to create the dream woman, but when their model of perfection becomes a flesh and blood reality, our imaginative pair get just a little more than they bargained for. Far from their subservient plaything, Lisa’s ‘Mary Poppins with breasts’ is a mischievous party animal who takes full advantage of the fact that Wyatt’s stuffy parents are away for the weekend, and it is through her magical powers and immediate popularity that the two boys are able to get their sweat socks through the door. But this is no free and easy ride to high school superstardom. This is John Hughes, and you best believe our unwilling heroes are going to earn the hearts of resident babes Deb and Hilly, the reluctant accessories of schoolyard alpha males Max and Ian. Ian is played by a young and cheeky Robert Downey Junior, whose real-life narcotic zest practically leaps off the screen in a film that embraces the 80s party mantra, a whirlwind of hormone-induced chaos underscored by the kind of anarchic new wave soundtrack that would become Hughes’ trademark.
Wyatt Donnelly: You know Gary, for the first time in my life; I don’t feel like a total dick.
Lisa aims to instil her creators with the confidence they need to realise that people will like them for who they are, not for what they can give them, but when she offers to shower with the boys, only to find they are too embarrassed to take off their jeans, our would-be-role model realises that she has her work cut out for her and decides to loosen them up by taking them to a local dive with their brand new fake IDs. This is the first of many scenes designed as a platform for Anthony Michael Hall’s precocious comedic talents, Gary turning from drippy geek to stone cold gangster in the drunken snap of a finger. Hall had that certain je ne sais quoi back in the late 80s. He was the kind of cocky scamp you’d imagine loathing in reality, but up on screen he was irresistible, and never was he let off the leash quite like he was in Weird Science. His superfly transformation, one of many inspired Hall moments, shows exactly what the young actor was all about. The boy was a born star.
Hall’s greatest roles came under the tutelage of Hughes, who had a knack for bringing out the best in young talent, of identifying their strengths and weaknesses and embellishing their real-life personas, something he did with the notoriously depressive John Candy in Trains, Planes and Automobiles, arguably the late comedian’s finest role. Hughes first discovered Hall as screenwriter on National Lampoon’s Vacation. The movie, based on Hughes’ short story Vacation ’58, originally saw Hall’s Rusty take centre stage, until the decision was made to tweak the script and have Chevy Chase’s inimitable patriarch Clark as the movie’s focal point, but in Hall, Hughes had stumbled upon someone quite special, something he would quickly take advantage of.
Of all his roles under Hughes, Hall admits that his time on the set of Weird Science was his favourite of all. Speaking at the Weird Science Reunion at the Denver Comic Con in 2015, Hall would say of his time with the director, “[Hughes] was a great collaborator. He was such a cool guy. He was very down-to-earth… he would sit right underneath the camera and be right there with us. He was like our first audience. And I just have great memories of that. He was always laughing. And he was such a great writer, but the thing that, for me, was very cool about him, was that he really empowered us just to try things, to ad-lib and just have fun with it.”
In many ways, LeBrock would act as the catalyst for the rambunctious cast’s exploding personalities, a sense of mischief that would translate to the screen. After bursting onto the scene as Vogue’s latest cover girl, LeBrock would break into Hollywood as the eponymous ‘Woman in Red’ in Gene Wilder’s romantic comedy of the same name, becoming the chic pin-up for males the world over and wowing American audiences with her distinctly British elegance. Even a peak-of-his-powers Steven Seagal would take note, the two of them wedding after a whirlwind romance that saw them have three kids together before splitting less-than-amicably in 1994.
Lisa: You know, there’s going to be sex, drugs, rock-n-roll… chips, dips, chains, whips… You know, your basic high school orgy type of thing. I mean, uh, I’m not talking candle wax on the nipples, or witchcraft or anything like that, no, no, no. Just a couple of hundred kids running around in their underwear, acting like complete animals.
Unleashing LeBrock’s unthinkable beauty onto a set of wild adolescents was bound to create fireworks, which was presumably the director’s intention. The scene where a positively smouldering LeBrock quite literally explodes onto the scene, emerging from the neon smoke in glorious spandex, left a generation of teenage boys tied in hormonal knots. Hughes knew he had a firecracker on his hands, and it wouldn’t take much to light the fuse. Hall and Downey Jr were particularly infamous for their Brat Pack shenanigans, and the on-set presence of the prepossessing model and actress was like baking soda and lemon juice to a crudely constructed chemistry rocket. Unsurprisingly, the actress would get an immediate whiff of the young cast’s burgeoning libidos, saying of her initial days on set: “That was horrendous for me. [Hall and Smith] had been filming for three weeks and this was only my second film… and you guys were intense. I mean, it was like being in a college fraternity.”
LeBrock was certainly feeling the hormone-induced heat, but that sense of intimidation worked both ways, especially when it came to the much quieter Ian Mitchell-Smith. Having initially turned down the role of Lisa to go horse riding in France with pop musician Sting, LeBrock would replace Rod Stewart’s girlfriend Kelly Emberg three weeks into filming, and she would make quite the impression upon her arrival.
Of his first meeting with the sumptuous LeBrock, Smith would recall, “I remember when she first showed up by a big sliding door, and you came in a black luxury car. I wanna say it was like a Rolls Royce. This is how I’m remembering it, right. And you got out with your British accent and your beauty and your body and your… black high riding boots?! And a doberman named Jack, and as much as you felt intimidated, I still can’t get over that image. I was like, holy cow! I think she’s gonna kill me, and I think I’m gonna like it.”
Co-star Anthony Michael Hall was equally beguiled by LeBrock, his adolescent desire to impress no doubt contributing to the vivacity of his performance. Previously cast in nerdy supporting roles, the Gary character enabled Hall to cross certain boundaries, and his performance is one of precocious mastery. Nothing like the scrawny dweeb character he would become synonymous with, Hall was a notorious party animal and womaniser away from the screen, and Hughes was able to channel that charm and energy to dazzling effect. Though Weird Science lacks some of the refinement of Hughes’ more recognised features, Hall’s performance as the cheeky, oppressed Gary is one of the finest the director ever inspired. It is right up there with John Candy’s Dell Griffith in terms of all-out belly laughs.
Gary Wallace: Ma, I never tossed off to anything!
As wonderful as his performance was, a young Hall lacked the experience to carry an entire movie on his shoulders, so Hughes opened the stage to one more classic performance. As Wyatt’s douchebag older brother, Chet, the late Bill Paxton lent his moronic touch to a supporting role that threatens to eclipse the entire movie. Chet is the oppressive sibling from hell, a helplessly ignorant, chauvinistic jock with a brainless buzz cut and penchant for unabashed extortion. Hall’s is the superior performance based on screen time, and there is an argument that Chet’s character is too one-dimensional to be anything more than a sideshow, but with what he had to work with Paxton achieved miracles, every misdirected philosophy and moronic belch pure comedy gold.
Chet has only a handful of lines in the movie, but each is immortalised in turn. Paxton would go on to much more serious roles and would eventually prove himself a writer and director of considerable talent, but this is hands-down his most memorable contribution to the silver screen, a fact that was all but confirmed when he was quizzed by a British newspaper on the part people seemed to most remember him for. The answer was categorically Chet, and right up to his premature passing in 2017, fans still approached him in the street asking him to repeat specific lines from one of the most quotable supporting characters of the era. “You’re stewed, buttwad!”
Chet Donnelly: Here’s the bottom line, Wyatt. I’m telling mom and dad. I’m even considering making up some shit!
Thanks to its science fiction leanings, Weird Science is more than just your typical run-of-the-mill coming-of-age comedy, and Hughes takes full advantage of its surreal edge, packing the screenplay with the kind of quirky gimmicks and crowd-pleasing scenarios that are a joy to behold as a young movie fan. By the end of the film, Wyatt’s house has been raided by killer mutants, his party-pooping grandparents have been left catatonic in a closet, and the house itself has been skewered by a nuclear missile that proves a phallic obstacle in Max and Ian’s failed attempt to create another Lisa for their own personal enjoyment. Downey Junior and hugely underrated 80s stalwart Robert Rusler are a hoot as the wholly self-serving Max and Ian, a pair of cutesy rapscallions who make the absolute most of their secondary roles, even managing to find their way into our good books by the film’s end; not through any kind of redemption, but through sheer magnetism and comic timing. Add to this your usual dose of teenage promiscuity and you have yourself a bona fide cult classic of the strictly adolescent persuasion.
Hughes invariably makes the right decisions in regards to an age group that he manages to achieve an uncanny affinity with. His moral resolutions can be trite and impractical and often contrived, but he never condescends to his audience. He speaks to them using their particular language, providing the kind of gilt-edged wish fulfilment that teenagers crave as they attempt to come to terms with their adolescence and the very real and unforgiving prospect of adulthood. With perhaps his most cherished film The Breakfast Club, he explored teenage alienation and the destructive expectations of both parents and peers alike. Weird Science never treads such dark territory, emphasising fun over teenage angst, but behind the cussing and the sexism and the outright perversity, there is a moral message about how kids should treat one another if they are to ever truly win the respect they invariably crave, and in the free-spirited Lisa they are able to overcome the insidious social structures which breed and develop and often oppress their way into our adult lives.