VHS Revival brings you all the box office and rental news from May 1991
May ’91 was chock-full of high-grossing box office hits, but the opening week was most notable for a stylish low-key comedy with a big heart. Based on a crime novel by Chester Himes, Bill Duke’s Rage In Harlem is a touching tale about an ingenuous churchgoer named Jackson (Forest Whitaker), who wins the heart of a salacious female grifter (Robin Givens) after becoming a key component in her latest con. Givens gives a surprisingly competent debut as a conflicted character smitten against all of her best instincts, and the two have an equally surprising chemistry, resulting in a film that deserved far more fanfare.
Set in Harlem in the 1950s, the movie was actually shot in an un-gentrified downtown area of Cincinnati which had a striking resemblance to the New York Borough of old. Duke landed the gig due to his skin colour, as producer Stephen Woolley searched specifically for an African American director capable of doing justice to the style and tone of the movie’s source material, while having a closer understanding of the culture at large. Rage in Harlem also stars Gregory Hines as Jackson’s street-smart brother, Goldy, and Lethal Weapon‘s Danny Glover as a numbers boss caught in the movie’s cat-and-mouse game of slick one-upmanship.
Brian Dennehy and 80s Australian stalwart Bryan Brown would reunite for F/X 2: The Deadly Art of Illusion on May 10th. A sequel to the superior 1986 sleeper hit F/X: Murder by Illusion, the movie treads familiar ground as Brown’s practical effects maestro, Rollie Tyler, agrees to help the cops for a second time. This in spite the fact that he was framed for murder and turned into a desperate fugitive after last agreeing to lend his inimitable skills.
This time Rollie is roped into the fray by his fiancee’s ex as the detective attempts to trap a killer via some practical effects magic, but when he’s set up and murdered, the tenacious Tyler attempts to uncover the truth and enrols the help of long-suffering buddy Lt. Leo McCarthy (Dennehy) for a convoluted thrill-ride that does as much as it can to squeeze out a worthy second adventure.
The movie is perhaps best remembered for a motion sensor clown which Rollie uses to beat the living shit out of an assailant. In spite of some cute embellishments, the film did rather less well than the original, which actually went on to become one of the all-time top rentals on VHS.
Mid-May would see the release of ex-American footballer Brian Bosworth’s mainstream movie debut. Set in the badlands of Alabama, Stone Cold tells the familiar story of a no-nonsense cop fighting department bureaucracy by way of a white supremacist biker gang known as ‘The Brotherhood’. In a suitably ludicrous turn of events, the gang plan to eliminate a tough-on-crime district attorney running for office by storming the supreme court with an artillery of stolen weapons. Surely there’s a less conspicuous way to go about your business! Stone Cold was particularly violent, and an unreleased version had to be cut in order for the movie to be released with an R rating.
As you can probably imagine for an ex-athlete trying on his acting boots, Bosworth is particularly wooden as a conflicted cop forced to go undercover, but the movie is brought to life by a dependable cast of thugs that include the always enigmatic Lance Henriksen and the similarly magnetic William Forsythe, resulting in a charming action romp that falls rather comfortably into the ‘so bad it’s good’ category. Bosworth would earn himself a Razzie nomination for his dual portrayal of Joe Huff/John Stone, but was pipped to the post for the title of Worst New Star, an accolade that went to Vanilla Ice for debut movie Cool As Ice, and deservedly so.
Another equally amusing (albeit for altogether different reasons) release that week was black situation comedy What About Bob? Directed by ex-Muppets puppeteer Frank Oz, it tells the story of an unstable psychiatric patient called Bob (Bill Murray), who invades the holiday home of egotistical psychiatrist Dr. Leo Marvin (Richard Dreyfuss), befriending the rest of his family and threatening to tip him over the edge. Using the original odd couple template, the movie received mostly rave reviews, particularly for the red hot Bill Murray, who would rely a lot on improvisation for a typically idiosyncratic performance.
Dreyfuss, however, was not first choice for the role of Dr. Leo Marvin, with both Woody Allen and Patrick Stewart first considered. The former’s eventual hiring would lead to a strained production since he and Murray didn’t get along. Regarding the role, Murray would say, “(Richard Dreyfuss and I) didn’t get along on the movie particularly, but it worked for the movie. I mean, I drove him nuts, and he encouraged me to drive him nuts.” On working with Murray, Dreyfuss would later confirm those comments when asked about his time filming What About Bob? “How about it? Funny movie. Terribly unpleasant experience. We didn’t get along, me and Bill Murray. But I’ve got to give it to him: I don’t like him, but he makes me laugh even now.” In 2015, Dreyfuss sued The Walt Disney Company over the movie’s profits after they refused to hire his chosen auditor for the movie.
Cleaning house during the month of May after a solitary week at the box office was Ron Howard’s action spectacular Backdraft―the director’s first movie since 1989‘s Steve Martin-led comedy Parenthood. Starring Kurt Russel and William Baldwin as firemen siblings with a rivalry that goes back to childhood, the screenplay is as formulaic as you might expect, but that’s of little consequence for a movie that features a series of breathtaking action set-pieces and the kind of special effects that you just don’t see in a post-CGI climate.
The movie also benefits from a fantastic supporting class, including Jennifer Jason Leigh and Rebecca DeMornay as the brothers’ long-suffering ex-partners and a typically engrossing Robert De Niro as a veteran fire inspector on the trail of a suspected arsonist. The movie would receive three Academy Award nominations (Sound Effects Editing, Visual Effects and Best Sound) and would top the charts for May with a rather handsome opening weekend of $12,868,200. Backdraft is another blockbuster ’90s movie to have slipped into relative obscurity.
Described as ‘beyond bad’ by Chicago Tribune critic, Terry Clifford, Hudson Hawk only added to Bruce Willis’ post- Die Hard slump as the actor prepared to slip into pre-Pulp Fiction obscurity following a series of commercial stinkers. The story of a recently paroled master burglar forced into another job, the movie was slammed for its “banal” comedy and “undercooked” screenplay. So badly received was the movie that it would receive a rather unimpressive three Razzie Awards for Worst Director (Michael Lehmann), Worst Screenplay and Worst Picture, with additional nominations for Worst Actor (Bruce Willis), Worst Supporting Actor (Richard E. Grant) and Worst Supporting Actress (Sandra Bernhard).
Hudson Hawk also bombed at the box office due to an uncertain marketing campaign that saw its tagline altered from “Catch The Excitement, Catch The Adventure, Catch The Hawk” to “Catch The Adventure, Catch The Laughter, Catch The Hawk”. Due to the enduring popularity of the Die Hard series, producers would attempt to rekindle those financial coups by advertising Willis as an action star when the movie was more of a comedy/adventure, and the actor would continue to be typecast until Tarantino came along and rescued him from commercial purgatory. The rest, as they say, is history.
Much better received that week, and in fact the third highest-grossing of the month, was Ridley Scott’s rite of passage American road movie Thelma & Louise. The tale of two put-upon Arkansas friends who cast off their male oppressors for an idealistic weekend at a cabin in the mountains, the movie takes a dark turn as the realities of life on the road lead them along a path of misfortune, and ultimately of self-discovery, serving as a dogged affirmation of the problems facing women in a male-dominated world.
Starring Susan Sarandon and Gina Davis (both in scintillating form as the movie’s tenacious heroins), Thelma and Louise would win the Academy Award for best screenplay, earning a further five nominations, including Best Actress in a Leading Role for both actors. The movie is also notable for a terrific support performance from an exceedingly young Brad Pitt as a handsome drifter with a dark underbelly who punctuates the woes of our lead players, resulting in one of cinema’s most unique and iconic car chases
Top Video Rentals
There was a clear winner in the rental arena for May, and it came in the form of Jerry Zucker’s romantic fantasy thriller Ghost. It’s easy to forget just how popular this movie was back in 1990 as it has since vanished into relative obscurity. Was it a great film? No. It was pretty average save for some rather grisly special effects and a few touching scenes, including one in which unlikely medium Oda Mae Brown (Whoopi Goldberg) has her body taken over by the deceased Sam Wheat’s spirit so that his grieving fiance can feel his touch one last time.
The movie, which stars the late Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore, will of course be best remembered for a certain pottery scene and the use of the 1965 Righteous Brothers classic Unchained Melody, which would return to the top of the charts and sit pretty for many weeks, and not many movies are capable of having that kind of impact. Ghost would also spend the entire month of May glued to the number 1 rental spot. Perhaps mine is merely a male perspective then, or even just a personal one, and the movie is actually much better than I remember. Personally, I much prefer the clay scene parody in The Naked Gun 2½: The Smell of Fear.
The closest any rental came to stealing Swayze’s manipulative crown that year was Alan J. Pakula’s vastly superior Presumed Innocent. Based on an explicit best-selling novel by Scott Turow, the movie stars Harrison Ford as Rozat “Rusty” Sabich, a prosecutor accused of raping a murdered woman he had an affair with, and explores the Hitchcockian staple of dealing with the prospect of being persecuted for a crime you didn’t commit.
Both Kevin Costner and Robert Redford were considered for the role of Sabich, the former―a mainstream giant back in 1991―turning down the role, the latter nixed by Pollack for his advancing age. Featuring a strong supporting cast, including the late Raúl Juliá, the ever dependable Brian Dennehy and Die Hard‘s Bonnie Bedelia, the movie would receive a positive critical reception for its intelligent performances and outstanding script, co-screenwriters Alan J. Pakula and Frank Pierson receiving both Edgar Alan Poe and USC Scripter Award nominations for their efforts.
Less notable for its screenwriting prowess but equally popular was by-the-numbers psychological thriller Pacific Heights, which used so many formulaic plot devices (cat making a noise in the basement anyone?) that you were able to skip each lazily contrived jump scare by mere anticipation. The dubious tale of a crazed tenant looking to drive a couple out of their home so he can buy it on the cheap (apparently he makes a good living out of this), the movie chronicled the plight of two wealthy yuppies in San Francisco, yet another reason not to invest in the film.
The movie did benefit from a superior cast, including Melanie Griffith and Matthew Modine as the poor stiffs who ‘happened upon’ the tenant from hell, and a typically wonderful Michael Keaton as crazed antagonist, Carter Hayes/James Danforth, who cranks up the psycho act and delivers some genuinely creepy moments. Still, the three of them deserved much better.
Two movies still going strong in May had each topped the rental charts the previous month. The first of those was Frank Marshall’s long-forgotten creepy crawly feature Arachnophobia. The story of a spider phobe (Jeff Daniels) who moves to a recently infested town with his family, the movie is a deftly structured quasi-horror that provides plenty of scares but very little terror. Unless, of course, you’re that way afflicted, in which case I’m sure it will offer terror in abundance.
The movie features quite a few memorable ‘don’t go there’ moments, particularly a scene involving a rather hazardous toilet endeavour (make sure you check under the rim before you crimp a loaf arachnophobes). The movie also benefits from the comic touch of John Goodman as a self-assured pest exterminator who quickly realises that he hasn’t quite seen everything in his day, and director Marshall does a wonderful job of showing him, and us, exactly what we’ve been missing.
The second movie refusing to yield to a spate of new entries was Joel Schumacher’s cult favourite Flatliners. The story of a group of medical students who become embroiled in ‘a who can top this?’ competition to cheat death, the movie would feature a series of entertaining performances from some of Hollywood’s biggest players, including Kiefer Sutherland as the gang’s unhinged leader and a red-hot, post-Pretty Woman Julia Roberts, and for me, therein lies the problem.
A macabre tale which explores the nature of the afterlife, the movie would have been better served as a less mainstream vehicle, instead of the polished, by-the-numbers quasi-horror churned out by Columbia Pictures with an eye on the commercial prize. A well- made film with a winning concept, Flatliners was perfect for its target audience, but could have been realised much more effectively.
May would also see two action heavyweights sparring for VHS supremacy. Rising star Steven Seagal would land a mid-month blow with Dwight H. Little’s drug war actioner Marked For Death, which would climb as high as number 2 by the month’s end. A fairly standard Seagal picture, Marked for Death would gross an incredible $57,968,936 from a mere $12,000,000 outlay.
Faring similarly well, albeit it with lower stakes movies, was a another 90s action icon. Death Warrant was the first of an incredible 16 action movies featuring Jean Claude Van Damme during the 1990s, and although his star would continue to rise, he wasn’t quite at the level of Seagal back in 1991. A familiar tale of a high-kicking cop forced to go undercover in a violent jail, the movie would hang around the top 20 for most of the month after a brief peak the month prior, and would gross a comparatively minuscule $16,853,487. Still, not bad for a movie with a budget of only $4,000,000. A banker in the minds of any producer, and the makings of Hollywood’s next go-to action hero.
Two more notable late entries were Brian De Palma’s unfortunate misfire The Bonfire of the Vanities and John G. Avildsen’s wholly unnecessary Rocky V. Although predecessor Rocky IV would become a cult phenomenon in the ensuing years (as well as making a truckload of money), creatively the series was beginning to lose its legs, its characters descending into the realms of sitcom predictability.
Rocky V would attempt to shake things up by having a brain-damaged Balboa come out of retirement for a street fight with cocksure up-and-comer Tommy Gunn. Sylvester Stallone would cast real-life boxer Tommy Morrison as the movie’s treacherous antagonist, while turning to the director of the original Rocky in order to try and rekindle some of that old magic. Instead, it killed the series dead, a compassionate act in anyone’s book.
The wonderful Brian De Palma also had a bad day at the office with his adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s sprawling satire The Bonfire of the Vanities. The story of a Wall Street broker who becomes the pawn in a political game of chess after his mistress runs down a youth in the projects, the novel is brimming with colourful, well-drawn characters, but is more a story of the city at large and the billion-footed beast that controls its inner-workings.
Unlike the novel, the movie suffers from a lack of character development and some serious miscasting, particularly action star Bruce Willis, whose attempts to branch out and tackle the role of gadabout journalist Peter Fallow fall flat, while other important characters barely get a mention. Tom Hanks is also out of his element as self-styled ‘master of the universe’ Sherman McCoy, resulting in a lively enough movie which fails to capture the author’s droll wit and Dickensian scope.
A film that would fail to make the top 10 for the month of May was Child’s Play 2. The sequel that took Tom Holland’s wise-cracking killer doll and turned him into the genre’s answer to Arnold Schwarzenegger, Chucky’s second outing was a wickedly charming movie that completely understood the irony of a murderous soul trapped inside the body of a freckle-faced cuddly toy, and had an awful lot of fun with it.
Surprisingly, the horror icon who spawned a decades-long franchise failed to make the expected impact on the rental charts, peaking at #13 before slipping back into VHS obscurity. The movie had fared much better at the box office a year prior, reaching #1 and grossing a not too shabby $35,701,605 from an estimated budget of $13,000,000. Brad Dourif would return to as the voice of the sadistic Charles Lee Ray, as Chucky goes in search of the now fostered Andy in an attempt to break free of his plastic prison.
Naturally, the producers over at Universal were having none of it.