Partying 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’s still one of John Hughes’ finest. It’s also one of his funniest, delivering surreal, balls-out laughter with a sci-fi twist. Hughes had a special talent for appealing to teenagers during his mid-80s pomp, possessing a profound understanding of what made them tick. Weird Science is crude, irreverent and wholly relatable, speaking to rambunctious adolescents on their level rather than patronising them with textbook morality lessons and unrealistic, studio-friendly characters. Hughes understood the way kids think, feel, and, perhaps most crucially, the ways and words they use to communicate amid 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.
Tonally, Weird Science is something of a departure for a writer/director who generally tackled teenage alienation with something of a dark edge. The film’s title was derived from the EC Comics anthology series of the same name, one which producer Joel Silver would acquire the rights to during the early 1980s, and is loosely based on the story “Made of the Future” by Al Feldstein, published as part of issue 5 in January 1951. EC Comics was the same company that published “Creepshow”, “Tales from the Crypt” and “Mad Magazine”, the former adapted into a series of successful splash panel-inspired movies involving Stephen King and George A. Romero, a style indicative of Weird Science‘s fun and anarchic nature. “Tales from the Crypt” would also receive the silver screen treatment, and, much like Weird Science almost a decade after its release, would spawn a TV Show of the same name. “Weird Science”, which ran for five seasons between 1994 and 1997, would follow the movie’s exact premise, updating Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for late 20th Century sensibilities. The fact that the concept still had legs so long after the film’s release speaks to Hughes’ fundamental understanding of his target audience.
Weird Science is the story of a couple of high school losers who decide to make a girl on their computer after finally accepting the fact that no mortal female will look at them twice. In an era when computers were portrayed as having unlimited capacities, they do so by feeding the system information in an attempt to get a leg up in a field they’re sorely and pathetically uneducated in. Gary and Wyatt 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 while giving 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 portrays her. Kelly LeBrock may have been a last-minute stand-in and glorified catwalk model, but she absolutely owns the part of feisty love interest-come-surrogate sister Lisa, embracing the role with an effortlessness that 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. It’s because of these qualities that Lisa has become something of a female empowerment icon. The studded punk leather jacket she wears when wielding a Clint Eastwood-style revolver on Gary’s unsuspecting parents was later sold to Dina Collection, a pawn shop in Beverly Hills, California, for $25,000.
In Lisa, Gary and Wyatt set out to create their own personal plaything, 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 becoming their subservient mistress, 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. Lisa may have different methods to Poppins, but the results are just as remarkable. It’s through her magical powers ― the kind that can conjure lavish sports cars and designer suits of the distinctly 80s variety ― 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, so 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 narcotics zest practically leaps off the screen. In a film that embraces the 80s party mantra, a whirlwind of hormone-induced chaos is underscored by the kind of rebellious new wave soundtrack that would become Hughes’ trademark. It’s far from the filmmaker’s most iconic selection, but with the likes of Oingo Boingo, Kim Wilde, Mike Oldfield and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark all featuring, it’s certainly one to cherish for fans of 80s nostalgia.
You know Gary, for the first time in my life; I don’t feel like a total dick.Wyatt Donnelly
With the likes of Max and Ian to contend with, public slushy attacks and gym class baggings are commonplace, something Gary and Wyatt’s ‘Bride of Frankenweiner’ looks to set straight. The bold and feisty 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’re too embarrassed to take off their jeans, our would-be-role model realises she has her work cut out 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 transformed from drippy geek into stone cold gangster in the drunken snap of a finger. Hall had that certain je ne sais quoi back in the mid-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. Three months after the release of Weird Science, Hall became the youngest Saturday Night Live cast member to date.
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 also did with the notoriously depressive John Candy in Trains, Planes and Automobiles, resulting in arguably the late comedian’s finest role. Hughes first discovered Hall as screenwriter on National Lampoon’s Vacation (Hall would later turn down Amy Heckerling’s 1985 sequel National Lampoon’s European Vacation to reunite with Hughes for Weird Science). 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, a fact that he would quickly look to exploit.
Of all his roles under Hughes, Hall admits that his time on the set of Weird Science brings back the fondest memories. If you want a peek at just how much fun the cast had shooting the movie, go back and watch the scene in which Bill Paxton’s Chet lines our young cast up for a fictional dressing-down, the cocksure Lisa making a complete mockery out of his attempts at playing the responsible elder (Chet! The name’s Chet! And I didn’t think it was a whale’s dick, honey!). Paxton sweats douchebag ignorance as the irrepressibly delusional Chet, the human equivalent of a frat house jock strap. It’s such a dead-on portrayal that the entire gang reach breaking point while playing witness to the actor’s complete transformation, trying and failing to hold back the giggles as he lords it over them with the boorish grandeur of a monobrowed philistine. Rather than reshoot the scene, Hughes chose to keep that moment in the final cut in order to embellish the film’s sense of fun, exactly the kind of decision that make his movies so relatable.
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.”
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.Lisa
Ironically, Hughes was rather displeased during filming because Weird Science interfered with the development of another project that he cared about much more dearly: The Breakfast Club. Hughes only agreed to direct Weird Science after cutting a deal with Universal which allowed him to direct a film that many see as the director’s opus, a project that was still in pre-production in 1984. This resulted in a gruelling schedule that left Hughes exhausted throughout the shoot, juggling with two projects within a severely limited and stressful timeframe, though judging from the cast’s recollections of working with him, he didn’t show it.
In many ways, LeBrock would prove just as much of an influence behind the scenes, her belated arrival acting as the catalyst for our 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 hotblooded males the world over and wowing American audiences with her distinctly British elegance. Even a peak-of-his-powers Steven Seagal would succumb to LeBrock’s charms, the two wedding after a whirlwind romance that saw them have three kids together before splitting less-than-amicably in 1994.
Unleashing LeBrock’s unthinkable beauty onto a set of wild adolescents was bound to create fireworks. The iconic moment in which 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 commercial 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, the on-set presence of the prepossessing model and actress 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.”
Ma, I never tossed off to anything!Gary Wallace
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, sacked for her unconvincing performance three weeks into filming, and would make quite the impression when she finally arrived on set. As Smith, smitten from the outset, 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.”
Hall was equally beguiled by LeBrock’s smouldering aura, his adolescent desire to impress no doubt contributing to the vivacity of his performance, which always seems to go up a notch whenever the two share screen time, particularly during the scene in the blues bar and at Gary’s parents’ house. The two had genuine chemistry. Previously cast in nerdy supporting roles, the Gary character enabled Hall to cross certain boundaries, his performance 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, Hughes able to channel that charm and energy to dazzling effect. Though Weird Science lacks some of the refinement and emotional punch of Hughes’ more recognised features, Hall’s performance as the cheeky, oppressed Gary is one of the finest the director ever inspired. It’s right up there with John Candy’s Dell Griffith in terms of all-out belly laughs.
As wonderful as he was in Weird Science, a young Hall lacked the experience to carry an entire movie on his shoulders, so Hughes opened the stage up to one more classic performance. As Wyatt’s douchebag older brother, Chet, the late Bill Paxton lends an imbecilic 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 a penchant for unabashed extortion. Hall’s is the lead performance based on screen time alone, and there’s 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 with films such as Sam Raimi’s hugely underrated neo-noir crime thriller A Simple Plan and his own directorial effort Frailty, but Chet 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. 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!”
Here’s the bottom line, Wyatt. I’m telling mom and dad everything. I’m even considering making up some shit!Chet Donnelly
Thanks to its science fiction leanings, Weird Science is more than just your typical run-of-the-mill coming-of-age comedy. 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 for young movie fans, particularly the sight of a topless pianist shooting up the family chimney. By the end of the film, Wyatt’s house has been raided by killer mutants (led by The Road Warrior‘s Vernon Wells in irresistible form), 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 Jr. 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 by exhibiting any kind of redemptive qualities (they’re far too ignorant for that) but through sheer magnetism and exquisite comic timing. Not only do they offer to swap sweethearts Deb and Hilly for a shot at Lisa, they try to convince Lisa to ditch ‘toads’ Gary and Wyatt for a shot at Space Mountain. They’re such idiots too. When they first spot Lisa in the mall and track her down, they stand there like a couple of dorks, Ian introducing Max as ‘Mad Max’ in a lame attempt to impress her. If it weren’t for their good looks they’d be even more clueless than Gary and Wyatt. More so. At least Gary and Wyatt are willing to learn. Max and Ian are stuck in a tenuous rut of popularity that can only wane as the two enter adulthood.
Not to be outdone by his character’s fictional puerility, a behind the scenes Downey Jr. also managed to live up to his real-life reputation and then some. For years there were rumours that the young troublemaker defecated in LeBrock’s trailer during filming, something that he and Rusler, who were very much real-life friends raised on a diet of ‘brat pack’ decadence (Downey Jr. actually drove Rusler to audition for Freddy’s Revenge on the last day of the shoot) often joked about. The actor later denied the rumours during an interview with infamous shock jock Howard Stern, though he did admit to defecating in another female cast member’s trailer (Renee Props who portrayed Babette Props of The Weenies), an act inspired by the youngster’s insatiable appetite to prove just how outrageous he could be. Producer Joel Silver would later quiz his young cast like a disappointed headmaster, Downey’s own reply to the accusation being, “No, but I sure wish it was me who did it.” Despite the incident, the actor claimed that there was never any tension between him and Hughes, the pair sharing a mutual respect and friendship throughout. LeBrock never did identify the culprit.
With a CV that includes Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink (writer) and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Weird Science may seem like something of a footnote in Hughes’ cult pantheon, especially as he wasn’t so enamoured with the project thanks to his devotion to The Breakfast Club, but it’s still a bona fide 80s classic of the strictly adolescent persuasion. The film’s romantic resolutions do seem a little rushed, the movie flirting with more generic territory during a final act that still features some knock-out moments (Chet’s stalking of the temporarily transformed Donnelly homestead with a hunting rifle is absolutely priceless), though this can likely be attributed to the director’s bloated schedule (this was Hughes’ second movie of the year, his third in fifteen months). Ultimately, Weird Science gives us a series of iconic turns and a screenplay that is never less than hilarious. It may lack the darker introspection synonymous with the filmmaker’s most lauded works, but it never condescends to its audience, speaking to them earnestly. Behind the surrealism, silliness and juvenile antics there’s also a moral message about how kids should treat one another if they’re to win the respect they invariably crave. With the help of the free-spirited Lisa, Gary and Wyatt are able to overcome the social structures that breed and develop and often oppress their way into our adult lives, dipshit siblings included.