VHS Revival recaptures a treasure trove of 80s nostalgia
It’s the winter of 1984, and Richard Donner is embarking on a very different kind of project. 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 industry’s 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, after fading from the limelight—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 that included 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?
Using a largely adolescent cast was quite the test for the already veteran director, but it was a youthful exuberance that translated to the screen. It didn’t hurt having Spielberg, who shot at least one of the scenes in The Goonies, as executive producer. Most executive producers are simply there to secure funding, maintain budget and schedule and manage the production’s cast and crew, and many have been known to stunt a film’s creativity for those very reasons. Not Spielberg, a man who turned the kids in peril formula into mountains of gold during the 1980s. His sense of bright-eyed adventure is all over this movie, devising the story and even adding elements from his own childhood, like Chunk’s confession of having puked off a balcony, a real-life prank pulled by Spielberg as a kid growing up in Phoenix, Arizona. With Gremlins director Chris Columbus onboard as screenwriter, the movie isn’t afraid to tread dark grounds either, and there are so many nods to Spielberg movies for fans to revel in, like Chunk’s police fib about creatures who multiply with water. The Goonies is the very definition of fun.
After its release the following summer, The Goonies became an instant classic in the minds of a generation, and would grow to become one of the most nostalgic and influential movies of the decade. Even now the 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.
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!
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 exploit 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 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 of 80s attitude. Ultimately, The Goonies juxtaposes pirates and skulduggery with a generation without purpose. Although purpose they will surely find.
For all their personal struggles, 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 Data’s Chinese stereotype for one thing, which though utterly harmless is the kind of thing that would surely inspire outrage viewed through today’s sociopolitical lens. Chunk’s iconic truffle shuffle, once the talk of every playground in the Western world, would today lead to 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 of 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, though to be fair the dialogue is a damn sight more real than anything that comes off today’s industry conveyor belt. Perhaps we’ve all become just a little joyless.
Despite the enlightenment of hindsight, 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, though 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, and for younger audiences floating around in the sweet bubble of idealism, it’s all very touching.
A typically precocious Corey Feldman would prove the biggest star of the 80s, the likes of Ke Huy Quan’s mini James Bond, Data, may have wowed kids with his gimmicky gadgets, but Jeff Cohen, who would fade into obscurity soon after what would prove his only big screen outing, is the comedic lifeblood of this movie. Part of this has to do with his emotional connection with John Matuszak’s Sloth and his iconic Superman shenanigans, but Cohen was nothing short of a revelation as the unfortunately named Chunk. The movie’s most hilarious scenes undoubtedly belong to him. His projection of sheer, unmanageable terror in the face of stuntman Ted Grossman’s teetering corpse, is one of those gallows humour moments that never gets old. Even as an adult the anticipation of that moment is an absolute joy. It still reduces me to tears of laughter. Then there’s the “confession” scene with the Fratellis, one so sidesplitting you can actually hear Richard Donner chuckling to himself off-screen when Robert Davi’s Jake Fratelli confiscates Chunk’s ice cream and reduces him to a blubbering mess. I just love those moments, usually reserved for outtakes, when cast and crew members simply can’t contain themselves. It’s nice to know they’re having as much fun as we are.
Another reason why Chunk proves the star attraction is the amount of onscreen time he spends with the Fratellis. Every great adventure movie needs a top class villain, and The Goonies gives us three of them. 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. Based on no-nonsense hillbilly Ma Kettle from the popular Universal Studios-produced films of the late 1940s/early 1950s, Mama Fratelli maintains enough of a comical edge to keep affairs lighthearted, but for kids used to a caring maternal figure she is a complete horror show, a mean-spirited dog-woman who proves more pirate than One-eyed Willy himself. Few actresses possess the sheer physical presence of Ramsey, and she absolutely revels in the role of remorseless ogre. I fail to think of another actress who could have fit the bill quite so perfectly.
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. Davi, a professionally trained opera singer who teases imprisoned second brother Sloth with strains of Giacomo Puccini’s opera “Madama Butterfly,” made a career out of portraying bad guys during the 1980s, and though the role isn’t as high-profile as his equally exceptional turn in John Glenn’s innovative Bond movie Licence to Kill, a generation will always remember him as Jake Fratelli. It’s no mean feat portraying a villain when cast alongside a character like Sloth, a physical monstrosity who fits the horror profile aesthetically, but in the end there’s only one true monster, and it isn’t the chained lunatic caked in practical effects grotesquery. Then you have one of the finest supporting actors of his generation in Joe Pantoliano, a perfect foil for his jealous sibling. The two are absolutely pathetic in their attempts to please Mama, and Pantoliano, with his shady tone and ceaseless sense of injustice, is the kind of snivelling toad who’s just begging to be stepped on. Ultimately, 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, and in the Goonies they more than meet their match.
Kids adventure movies are ten to the penny, but those characters who make up the Goonies are so relatable beyond their obvious commercial elements. The younger members are such a high-spirited rabble, so bursting with energy, and there’s a genuine quality to it all that tells you these kids are no different in real-life, that they are embarking on a genuine, fun-filled adventure beyond the realms of fantasy. The older kids are just as relatable. There are few things in life as magical as the first stirrings of a libido, which opens us up to more than any fantasy adventure ever could, and for all the booby traps and moments of near-death heroics, it is the whiff of romance that endears us so strongly to these characters and the journey of adult responsibility they embark on. I had such a crush on Kerri Green’s Andy as a kid. The scene where Mikey steals a kiss in a darkened cave was not only a significant moment in my childhood, but a significant moment in the movie. It strengthens the group’s bond, emboldens their leader and gives them the determination to overcome odds beyond the powers of helpless children. It allows them to grow and push forth at a crucial juncture, to discover riches beyond the kind you can hold in your hand.
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 deliverer on its promise, something Donner, Spielberg and Columbus singularly understood. Throughout their adventure, the gang 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?
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.
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.
The ship, modelled after Errol Flynn’s in 1940’s swashbuckling adventure The Sea Hawk, was an absolutely jaw-dropping spectacle for watching tykes back in 1985, and the film’s cast were no more immune to its visual majesty, not even a 17-year-old Josh Brolin, who was so astonished upon being confronted with it that he famously mouthed the words, “Holy shit!” as his fellow cast members looked on in awe. The film’s climax is everything we’d hoped for from a visual perspective, but before the ‘money will save the day, American as apple pie’ conclusion, the kids must earn their freedom through more than just emotional and physical toil.
Before Rosalita’s liberating discovery and the resulting blizzard of a torn-to-shreds contract, Donner tones down the magic and gives his pewee characters a lesson in humanity. 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. Throughout the movie, the kids are subjected to an emotional roller coaster, 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 awaits beyond their adventure. Not only does it allow them to view 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 brings, but through Willy they realise that it is more about the journey than the spoils, and the newfound understanding that journey brings.