VHS Revival recaptures a treasure trove of 80s nostalgia.
After shooting to fame with supernatural horror The Omen, the director would quickly land the original Superman movie, proving himself on the grandest scale before forging one of the most successful action movie sagas in the Lethal Weapon series. But before tangling with the likes of Hollywood heartthrob Mel Gibson, Donner would try his hand at a Spielbergian adventure featuring a cast of tearaways who would prove something of an eye opener. “It is the most difficult thing I could have gotten into,” he would joke during a behind the scenes featurette. “I never anticipated what it was gonna be like. Because individually they’re wonderful, they’re nuts, they’re the warmest, craziest little things that have come into my life, but in a composite form you get them all together and it’s mind-blowing.”
Perhaps an apt description for the sticky metamorphosis of the mogwai, but Donner was of course referring to the brat pack cast of spirited 80s romp The Goonies, yet another in a long line of Spielberg-produced movies to light up the decade. This was a veritable who’s who of child actors, kids who could boast the kind of filmography that would make most Hollywood starlets green with envy. While some of those are perhaps best remembered for a latter day Renaissance—Sean Astin and Josh Brolin working with Peter Jackson and the Coen Brothers respectively—Corey Feldman was everywhere in the 1980s. As well as playing the movie’s loquacious smart arse, Mouth, he would become one of the hottest stars in the industry, starring in a plethora of cult hits, including Rob Reiner‘s critically acclaimed Stephen King adaptation Stand by Me and the Donner-produced The Lost Boys. Even flavour-of-the-month Asian-American actor Jonathan Ke Quan would land a major role in mega bucks Indiana Jones sequel The Temple of Doom before fading into cinematic obscurity. His fame may have been short-lived, but how many actors can lay claim to working with both Spielberg and Donner in the space of a year?
Stef: Data where are you going?
Data: I’m setting booty traps.
Stef: You mean booby traps?
Data: THATS WHAT I SAID! BOOBY TRAPS! God. These Guys!
Using a largely adolescent cast may have presented quite the test for the already veteran director, but it was a youthful exuberance that translated to the screen. Upon its release the following summer, The Goonies would become an instant classic in the minds of a generation, proving one of the most nostalgic and influential movies of the decade. Even now film’s sense of adventure can be found pumping through the veins of 21st century Hollywood, most notably in the likes of Stranger Things and Andy Muschietti’s IT! remake, productions that have sparked the current retro revolution and a fondness for all things 80s. Nostaglia is cyclical, and each period is represented by certain cultural events. The Goonies may not be front-and-centre in that regard, but it peddles on the periphery like a gaggle of rambunctious adolescents off in search of lost treasure. That sense of enchantment, of awe and discovery, it saturates proceedings like a shifting climate, Dave Grusin’s score an evocative haze of intrigue and wonderment.
Part of the movie’s immediate success was due to the production’s savvy marketing, commercial ties with the red-hot World Wrestling Federation and pop star Cyndi Lauper allowing producers to utilise the MTV pop culture Juggernaut with hit single Goonies R Good Enough, but marketing aside, the movie has passed the test of time. It may seem a little mawkish in retrospect, particularly through Mikey’s almost ceaseless monologuing, but for a young kid The Goonies is pure wish fulfilment, a rambunctious tale that plays the emotions like a violinist drunk on enchantment. The movie also takes a rather large leaf out of Spielberg’s book, who with E.T. had revolutionised Hollywood cinema, putting the tween-led adventure movie on the map, something Donner does quite literally with a rich and heartfelt gang of Spielberg-penned characters. The plethora of gadgets and booby traps on show are pure Indiana Jones, and the movie plays out like a cinematic version of The Hardy Boys, one spruced with a generous dash 80s attitude. Ultimately, The Goonies juxtaposes pirates and skulduggery with a generation without purpose. Although purpose they will surely find.
In the Goonies themselves we have a gang of absurd stereotypes who are at the same time relatable, an element punctuated by a high speed chase that deftly introduces us to a rabble of peewee outsiders who will uncover the truth about an almost mythical character, one who will ultimately allow the townsfolk to rediscover their sense of magic. Each of our unlikely heroes has their own sense of personal conflict and resolution: the chubby telltale who will ultimately earn respect, the young malcontent smitten by the first hint of love, and the weak asthmatic kid who overcomes his fears to right the wrongs of modern society. Even the preposterously clichéd Data speaks to the imagination, his vast array of juvenile inventions somehow saving the day in spite of their silliness. The movie is so adept at tapping into a child’s imagination. Whether it’s log flume slides, malfunctioning boxing gloves or tensely orchestrated set-pieces, the movie manages an epic scale that transcends its production, making events not only believable but strangely attainable (some of those gadgets you could almost make yourself using the contents of your toy box).
But for all those personal battles, it is the group conflict that provides the movie’s universal draw. The Goonies centres on the struggles of Mikey’s parents, who are at risk of losing their home to a ruthless property developer as the unwholesome stench of privatisation pollutes their carefree existence, and of all the pirates and gremlins and monsters of the world, nothing is as scary to a child as the overlooked but very real threat of one day becoming homeless. Similarly, the gang are extended family, and the prospect of losing their friends to another state is just as daunting, something akin to leaving for college and facing the realities of adulthood without the only real allies you have ever known, and perhaps ever will know. For kids like Mikey and Mouth, small town life is their whole world, a bastion of juvenile comfort that must be defended at all costs.
Data: Hey any of you guys ever hear of Detroit?
Mouth: Sointenly! Where Motown started. It’s also got the highest murder rate in the country.
Data: Well, let me tell you what. That’s where we’re going when we lose the house tomorrow.
Mikey: You shut up about that stuff, it’ll never happen. My dad will fix it.
Brandon Walsh: Yeah sure he will. If he gets his next 400 paychecks by tommorrow afternoon.
Mikey: That’s wrong Brand! It won’t happen.
It’s a dark premise, but the movie treads such a fine line on occasion that some of its most iconic moments probably wouldn’t exist in today’s sensitive climate. There’s the Chinese stereotype for one thing. Chunk’s iconic truffle shuffle, once the talk of every playground in the Western world, would today inspire the kind of cyber bullying that makes some lives a misery. There are also moments of horror that might struggle to creep past the censors in a movie aimed at such an impressionable demographic. The Goonies begins with a fake hanging and even throws a dead body into the mix. The scene where Chunk is trapped in a freezer with a frozen corpse brings the best out of the young actor, but stiffs are rarely filmed with such gratuity in kids’ films today. Even more jarring is the movie’s often lurid sexual nature. The statue erection gag may be pushing it, but a scene in which Mouth wrongly translates to an unknowing Mexican maid, informing her of Mr. Walsh’s secret stash of heroin and the ‘sexual torture devices’ he sometimes uses on unsuspecting guests is above and beyond, although to be fair, the dialogue is a damn sight more real than anything that comes off today’s cookie cutter industry. Perhaps we’ve all become just a little joyless.
Still, it’s all very innocent, and for the most part expertly balanced. Much of that balance comes from the film’s moral aspirations. Inevitably, there are lessons to be learned here, particularly through quasi-monster Sloth, who proves beyond any shadow of a doubt that beauty is only skin deep, although the preposterous notion that he will escape his years of dungeon solitude to live with Chunk and his family is a little icky in hindsight. I mean, what will Sloth do when Chunk hits puberty and starts to notice girls? He’s not exactly the kind of face that would impress a potential squeeze at the family dinner table. And God help the poor girl if Sloth lays eyes on his favourite Babe Ruth candy bar. I’m sure Chunk’s parents would be more than accommodating. Still, in Sloth Chunk rescues another outsider, a surrogate Goonie just waiting to break free and fulfil his potential. The two are physical outcasts brought together by a common understanding.
Another element that provides such balance are the movie’s villains. Fratelli matriarch, Mama, is played by one of the most recognisable baddies of the decade in Anne Ramsey, whose haggard kisser was enough to send any impressionable minor lurching for the safety of their parent’s sofa. More great casting comes in the form of the Fratelli brothers. Robert Davi’s acne-scarred mug appears like a flash of hell in his crudely lit wing mirror as a devilish falsetto rings in Chunk’s disbelieving ears. Then you have one of the finest actors of his generation in Joe Pantoliano, a perfect foil for his jealous sibling. In the end, it is this jealousy and the dynamic it inspires that turns a crew of ominous crooks into a foolish rabble. They may be cruel and intimidating, but they are also bumbling and without focus, consumed by the kind of inner bickering that negates their fearsome reputation and empowers their juvenile prey.
As fun as the ride is, with a movie like The Goonies the payoff is just as crucial, something that Donner and Spielberg singularly understood. For all the mystique and the legend revolving around One-eyed Willy and his murderous crew, for the movie’s adventure to be worth its weight in gold it would have to eclipse the kind of emotional journey that brings our gang ever closer together. Throughout their adventure they are hugely conflicted, torn between the ingrained pessimism of adulthood and the youthful belief that it is not too late to save the day, between quitting and turning back or seeing through on their promise. They are trapped between responsibility and irresponsibility, because ultimately they are unsure about which is which. Is it responsible to give in and avoid the potential perils that lay ahead, or is it irresponsible to abandon all hope and return with their tail between their legs, grown-ups in the eyes of their parents, but failures in the deepest understanding of their souls?
Stef: Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, stop, stop! You can’t do this.
Stef: Because these are somebody else’s wishes. They’re somebody else’s dreams.
Mouth: Yeah, but you know what? This one, this one right here. This was my dream, my wish. And it didn’t come true. So I’m taking it back. I’m taking them all back.
In order to achieve the kind of pay-off befitting of their physical and emotional journey, Donner does two things. Firstly, he ups the spectacle. Although a giant octopus was mercifully nixed from the final cut, he gives us wild slides and unimaginable treasures, turning his set into the kind of theme park attraction that could only have stimulated his cast for the movie’s crescendo. But his real stroke of genius was building a life-sized pirate ship as the setting for the film’s climactic scene, one the young cast had no knowledge of until it was time to shoot. Basically, they’re consuming the spectacle as we are.
The second thing he does is tone down the magic and give his pewee characters a lesson in reality—at least temporarily. One of the movie’s central morality plays is the idea that, no matter how dependent on it we may become, there is more to life than money, or in this case riches. Throughout the movie the kids go through a series of ups and downs, the scene in which they seem to stumble upon Willy’s treasure prematurely, only to realise they are standing under a wishing well proving particularly significant. Rather than answering their hopes and dreams, the well acts as a window into reality and the monotonous, real-life tragedy that waits beyond their adventure. Not only does it allow them to see their situation through the sober eyes of adulthood, it inspires them to make one last push for freedom with the kind of heartfelt abandon that only a child can conjure.
When the kids finally do splash their way to a mysterious cave of gems and rubies, they immediately rejoice in their newfound opulence, but through the long-fabled Willy, Mikey grows to discover what is truly important. For The Goonies, riches represent freedom, perhaps the only thing in life other than love that transcends the prospect of wealth and the peace of mind it may bring, but through Willy they realise that it is more about the journey than the spoils, and the newfound understanding that journey brings.
Cedric Smarts: Editor-in-Chief and Art Director
Science fiction author, horror enthusiast, scourge of plutocracy, shortlisted for the H. G. Wells Award, creator of vhsrevival.com
Likes: 80s poster art, Vangelis, classical liberalism, dystopian allegories, dissident political activism, Noam Chomsky, George Orwell, George Saunders, John Updike, Kurt Vonnegut