This Month In…1996 (May)

VHS Revival brings you its monthly retro box office and rental rundown

May 1

When you announce that everyone will one day be famous for 15 minutes, you best be careful what you wish for. Controversial pop art icon Andy Warhol found that out the hard way when radical feminist and author Valerie Jean Solanas took it upon herself to put a bullet in him. Solanas would fire at Warhol three times in total, the first two shots missing and the third wounding him. She would also cap art critic Mario Amaya and even attempted to see off Warhol’s manager Fred Hughes at point blank range until her pistol jammed, a fortuitous incident for them both. I wonder if, prior to her attempted triple assassination, Solanas used cans of Campbell’s soup as target practice?

Fortunately, future American Psycho director Mary Hannon doesn’t concern herself with such trivialities in her indie dramatisation about the life of Solanas and her relationship with Warhol, a person she accused of stealing her work along with French publisher Maurice Girodias. The movie chronicles Jean’s abusive childhood and life of prostitution, the latter putting her through college, and her ultimate descent into partial schizophrenia. This is achieved objectively by first-time director Harron, who with the help of perennial oddball Lili Taylor manages to portray Solanas as a talented, sympathetic and often likeable character, despite her angry and resentful motivations. The movie would also star Stephen Dorff as transsexual Candy Darling, a similarly unique character who would introduce Solanas to Warhol’s  New York City studio The Factory, a venue that would ultimately seal her fate.

Though the movie did understandably poor numbers at the box office as blockbuster season approached, it was received very well critically, announcing Harron as a director of immense talent. She would be nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival.

May 3

Big boobs Baywatch icon, Pamela Anderson, would take her bosom-oriented charms to the silver screen for bitch-with-brawn action sci-fi effort Barb Wire, a movie with the usual repertoire of Arnie-based puns that includes the inevitable, “Look at those Guns!” double entendre, and as a 13-year-old squirming under the oppressive powers of puberty, look at them I did, and I’m not referring to the shiny, metal variety.

Pam’s mainstream popularity had reached its apotheosis back in 1996 following a high-profile marriage to controversial rock star Tommy Lee and the kind of leaked sex tape that has become commonplace in the 21st century as a means for garnering your own 15 minutes of fame, though the whole charade has now become so calculated society barely flinches. Ironic, then, that Barb Wire takes place in a future 2017, a time and place so desensitised to violence and corruption that Anderson’s good-hearted vigilante is known to drive her boot heel through the foreheads of thoroughly deserving hoodlums.

In this regard, Pam’s rubber-clad character seems to empower women, but an opening strip-club dance involving lots of water is sure to irk the feminist community, particularly since the idea came from a real-life dream of Pam’s involving a bottle of champagne (though one suspects that dream was actually a heavily intoxicated boat ride with her gentlemanly ex-husband). Amazingly, the movie’s plot is actually a transparent derivative of Academy Award winning, World War II drama Casablanca. I kid you not.

Unsurprisingly, Barb Wire would bomb critically, and the comic book upon which it was based would come to an abrupt end shortly after the movie’s release and miserable reception. Recouping a thoroughly disappointing $3,775,952 at the box office (resulting in a loss of almost $20,000,000), the movie would later have the ignominious distinction of appearing on a list of The 100 Most Amusingly Bad Movies Ever Made in Golden Raspberry Award founder John Wilson’s book The Official Razzie.

Following the release of Wes Craven’s meta-infused ode to genre filmmaking, Scream, the horror genre would experience a long-awaited return to popularity during the mid-90s following years of creatively-barren, gore-free fodder. Very few of those movies possessed the wit or relevance of Craven’s game-changing New Nightmare upgrade, but would retain the kind of superficial sheen that was enough to ignite the interest of a whole new era of scare-junkies, as the genre flexed its commercial savvy and tapped into the Marylin Manson led goth revolution.

Andrew Fleming’s The Craft was one such movie. Starring Scream‘s Neve Campbell, the movie is a post-Clueless high school revenge fantasy about a coven of outsiders dubbed “The Bitches of Eastwick”, who pool their powers to wreak vengeance on a class of teenage suburbanites before morality rears its pretty little head. The movie was an impressive (at the time) effects-laden exercise in teen-oriented horror, though ultimately lacked any kind of creative force as a result.

Practical effects had been central to the previous decade’s horror boom, and by the mid-90s, the perpetually dating CGI revolution was in full swing, resulting in a slew of movies which relied on its temporary charms and suffered in hindsight. Still, as popcorn entertainment for kids on the look-out for vicarious thrills, The Craft was yet another slick production at a time when studios churned out ruthlessly adequate horror with a level of aplomb never before seen.

With an opening weekend of $6,710,995, The Craft was the sixth highest grossing movie of May, with an eventual cumulative worldwide gross of $30,900,000. Not bad for a movie that cost approximately half that amount.

May 10

Blockbuster season would come early in the Spring of ’96 with Speed director and former Die Hard and Lethal Weapon 3 cinematographer Jan De Bont. The movie would star Helen Hunt and the late Bill Paxton as once happily-married storm chasers determined to, well, chase a storm, thereby understanding its behaviour via a collection of dubious devices named DOROTHY (as in The Wizard of Oz). By this time, however, their relationship is somewhat stormy (sorry, I couldn’t resist), and the two are on the verge of signing divorce papers until the experience of a lifetime forces them to reassess.

Produced by Stephen Spielberg and featuring a screenplay from CGI advocate Michael Crichton, the movie is typically overblown (second pun intended), and among the special effects carnage would even feature the rather curious image of a flying cow, one I found particularly ridiculous even back then. Released at a time when novel advancements in CGI were enough to pull in the punters, the movie lacks any real narrative bite, but you can’t knock it for energy and visual panache, something De Bont excels in, and as a straight-up, mainstream spectacular it was one of the most sought-after and successful of the year.

Following the tragic and premature death of Paxton in 2017 to complications arising from a heart operation, Spotter Network choreographed 200 storm chasers to spell out “BP” with GPS tracker blips on a radar display in his honour, a classy touch for a talented actor/director who would immortalise himself as perennial douchebag Chet in John Hughes teen comedy Weird Science, also delivering memorable turns as the ruthless Severen in Kathryn Bigelow’s innovative neo-noir vampire Flick Near Dark and macho marine Private Hudson in James Cameron’s Aliens, though a confrontation with an army of xenomorphs would soon alter that particular disposition.

Generic and breathtaking in equal measures, Twister would top the box office charts in May, with an incredible worldwide gross of $252,750,000.

May 16

When it comes to movies which defined the ’90s, it doesn’t get much bigger than Irvine Welsh adaptation Trainspotting, the movie which gave future 28 Days Later director Danny Boyle a mainstream platform, and though subsequent adaptation The Beach failed to pull-up any critical trees, Trainspotting would define a generation on UK shores, hitching a ride on the Oasis-led Britpop freight train with some savvy pop culture marketing and a killer soundtrack that included Lou Reed, Blondie and Iggy Pop, while Underworld’s 1995 release Born Slippy captured the dance culture of a generation.

Starring Ewan McGregor in his breakthrough role and featuring fantastic support from Robert Carlisle as unscrupulous hardcase Begbie, Ewen Bremner as perennial ‘Smack heed’ Spud, and future Boardwalk Empire matriarch Kelly Macdonald, the movie would shift the events of the novel from the late ’80s to the mid-90s, from Conservative Thatcherism to the quasi-Conservative, Blairite Labour generation, each regime breeding the kind of widespread unemployment and drug addiction that drives the movie’s events.

The film chronicles the addiction of four friends from the poverty-stricken doldrums of Edinburgh, and how for three of those friends heroin replaces work, sex, love and a severe lack of it. The three of them are addicts together and as a result inseparable until the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime score frays the very edges of their close-knit community. Trainspotting is a rare movie of both style and substance, the kind that resonates beyond the culture it portrays through a sense of camaraderie and nostalgia in what is an often intensely bleak, black comedy, one that somehow manages to remain feelgood beyond the infant deaths and surrealist descents into the abyss of “The Worst Toilet in Scotland”.

Trainspotting would be subjected to the usual political furore as an advocate for drug-taking, but such a myopic and shallow stance only served to bolster the film’s impact, which would ultimately receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. In the UK, Trainspotting would grow in popularity on the VHS market, while the distinctly British movie barely registered in the US due to a limited theatrical release.

May 21

The Tom Cruise of the 21st Century is a veritable action icon most synonymous with the Mission Impossible series. Post Jason Bourne, the franchise has evolved to breathtaking levels. It would be a long road to where we are now, the actor indulging in sentimental romcoms, unfinished Stanley Kubrick projects and epic Spielbergian sci-fi along the way, while Face/Off director John Woo would amp-up the action sequences for Mission Impossible 2, but it all began with Brian De Palma’s mid-’90s original.

Based on the cult ’60s TV series, the movie follows the exploits of Ethan Hunt as he attempts to clear his name having been framed for the murder of his entire team. Paramount, who owned the rights to the series, had been trying to translate the concept to the silver screen for some time when Cruise hopped on as producer and chose Mission Impossible as the debut feature for his upstart production company, receiving a $70,000,000 kitty for his efforts, and he would return the favour by overseeing a project that was completed on time and under budget — quite the achievement in the realms of tinsel town decadence.

The movie would also agree to a multimillion-dollar promotional deal with Apple Computers, which included a game, various print ads and some good old-fashioned product placement for a struggling company which had posted a $740,000,000 loss in its fiscal second quarter. By all accounts their new marketing exploits were rather successful. Mission Impossible also holds the historical distinction of being the last major studio motion picture to be released for home video on the long-flailing Betamax video cassette format.

The box office was also kind to Cruise and co. Mission Impossible would go on to become the third highest-grossing movie of 1996 with a US gross of $180,981,856, trailing only the Will Smith led, alien invasion blockbuster Independence Day and aforementioned disaster extravaganza Twister. The movie would manage a staggering cumulative worldwide gross of $457,696,359.

May 24

In the realms of spoof and slapstick comedy, straight-actor-turned-Zucker/Abrahams icon Leslie Nielsen is a sovereign state, and he owes that title to his inimitable turns in the Airplane and Naked Gun movies — particularly the latter. Nobody in the history of comedy could play straight and dignified with the transparent idiocy of one Lieutenant Frank Drebin — his verbal delivery, his facial expressions and ability to remain impervious in a world of rampant nonsense are nothing short of iconic, and will in all likelihood never be replicated.

By 1994, the Naked Gun carnival float had come to a stuttering halt. That year’s conclusion to the trilogy, Naked Gun 33⅓: The Final Insult, still had plenty going for it, and actually featured some of the most inspired sequences in the series, but the writing was on the wall. Still, audiences wanted more Nielsen, and there were a bucket load of bad productions just lining up to cash-in on the actor’s legendary status.

Dracula: Dead and Loving It, Wrongfully Accused and 2001: A Space Travesty all aped their respective genres to pitiful degrees, and 1996 effort Spy Hard was no different, counting on our star performer’s unique abilities but setting him up for the fall with each lazily conceived parody. For shame! All these movies achieved was to remind us just how special The Naked Gun series was, and how, in spite of our leading man’s importance to the overall product, those movies were the result of ingenious writing and first class collaboration.

Of course, that didn’t stop the punters flocking to theatres for the inevitable disappointment, hoping that Nielsen could conjure at least a modicum of his comedic peak. Spy Hard was the fifth most popular movie of May, with an eventual US gross of $26,960,191 — not too shoddy for a vehicle of its monetary ambition.

As for the movie itself…don’t get me started.

Top Video Rentals

VHS rentals had dropped by an incredible 80,000,000 units per annum since its 1992 peak as the DVD revolution approached, but they were still flying off the shelves with approximately 180,000,000 rentals for the year of 1996, and May would deliver some absolute classics to the movie-hungry masses.

The rental charts were dominated by two ’90s giants who would each share the top spot for two weeks out of the month. The first of those was Mel Gibson’s second directorial effort Braveheart. Three years after his often mawkish debut The Man Without A Face, Gibson would turn to the historical battlegrounds and the First War of Scottish Independence against King Edward I of England. Gibson plays late 13th-century Scottish warrior William Wallace, an unbending nationalist who undergoes great sacrifice in the name of “Freeeeeeeeedoooooooom!”

In reality, the director’s cinematic retelling of events is grossly inaccurate. Professor of History and Scottish Studies Elizabeth Ewan would describe Braveheart as a movie that, “almost totally sacrifices historical accuracy for epic adventure”, and screenwriter Randall Wallace has cited Blind Harry’s 15th-century epic poem The Acts and Deeds of Sir William Wallace, Knight of Elderslie as his primary inspiration. The movie’s various inaccuracies include costumes, monikers (“Brave Heart was actually the name given to Robert the Bruce), character ages (Isabella was approximately three years old and living in France during the Battle of Falkirk), and, most damning of all, Gibson’s Wallace actually changed sides on numerous occasions during the early stages of the war, which questions both his loyalty and resolve, both of which are central to the character’s integrity.

Still, history is empirical and spotty at best, and in many ways Braveheart is bloody and authentic, with a series of excruciating battles that wowed the mainstream at the time, and as a Hollywood epic made purely for entertainment purposes, it was difficult to top. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences agreed, awarding Braveheart a total of 5 Oscars (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Sound Effects Editing, Best Makeup), and a further 5 nominations (Best Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen, Best Costume Design, Best Sound, Best Film Editing and Best Original Score), announcing Gibson as a filmmaker with serious aspirations.

The second of those movies would usurp Gibson’s epic after 5 weeks in the charts. David Fincher’s icky crime thriller Se7en would also prove a landmark film for one of the industry’s soon-to-be lead players in Brad Pitt, after a series of impressive minor roles in movies such as Thelma & Louise and the Tarantino-penned, crime fantasy True Romance. In Pitt’s corner was the wonderful Morgan Freeman, here riding the wave of his show-stealing turn as character/narrator Red in Frank Darabont’s timeless Stephen King Adaptation The Shawshank Redemption, one of the surprise VHS hits of 1995.

Se7en tells the story of a deranged serial killer (Kevin Spacey) who chooses his victims based on their indulgence in the seven deadly sins, using the kind of ironic punishment that taps into our deepest fears and regrets. On his trail are an almost retired detective and Brad Pitt’s short-tempered and idealistic upstart, who receives the package of a lifetime in one of the most gripping finales of the decade.

At the time, Se7en pushed the boundaries of the crime thriller with horror elements that have now become standard. It had such an impact on the movie-going public that I recall one student being expelled from the college I attended for rewriting the film’s plot, with fellow classmates replacing the tortured victims (I wonder what he’s up to now?). The movie would also feature a groundbreaking title sequence from Yale graduate Kyle Cooper that was hailed as an advancement in filmmaking by The New York Times. So innovative and captivating was his work that many directors refused to collaborate with him for fear of being overshadowed.

Though receiving just a solitary Academy Award nomination (Best Film Editing), Se7en was hardly a Hollywood-friendly picture, and the movie would receive a hugely positive response from other corners. Fincher would later cast Pitt in cult Chuck Palahniuk adaptation Fight Club.

A popular new entry in May came in the form of Gus Van Sant’s crime mockumentary To Die For. The movie stars the BAFTA nominated Nicole Kidman as a ruthlessly ambitious local cable station secretary with designs on becoming a world renown broadcast journalist, and in doing so sets about having her husband (Matt Dillon) assassinated by a group of high school kids by seducing and manipulating a young Joaquin Phoenix.

The movie was based on the real-life story of media services consultant Pamela Smart, who in May 1, 1990 recruited a group of adolescents to murder her 24-year-old husband, Greggory Smart, and was later convicted as an accomplice to first-degree murder, for conspiracy to commit murder and witness tampering. To Die For‘s wicked sense of comedy and exploration of tabloid ethics was a breath of fresh air back in the mid-90s, and is considered by many to be Kidman’s finest performance.

So determined was Kidman to land the role that she would track down Van Sant’s personal number and spent 40 minutes over the phone explaining exactly how the character should be portrayed. She would also subject herself to a three-day diet of reality TV in preparation for the part. The actress’ mesmerising turn as Suzanne Stone would inspire several peers, influencing Reese Witherspoon’s decision to play the role of insufferable do-gooder Tracy Flick in 1999‘s similarly black high school comedy Election and providing the template for Rosamund Pike’s cold-hearted performance in 2014’s Gillian Flynn adaptation Gone Girl.

Entering the rental charts at #10 during the first week of May, To Die For would spend the rest of the month in the top 5 with a position high of #4. At the box office a year prior the movie would barely break even, with a US gross of $21,284,514 from a budget of approximately $20,000,000.

Plummeting down the rental charts after five weeks hovering conspicuously around the top five was Jim Carrey vehicle Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls. Carrey would burst onto the mainstream two years earlier as inimitable pet detective Ace, his rubber-faced antics wowing adolescents the world over. Starring Blade Runner‘s Sean Young as an evil transvestite behind the disappearance of a dolphin, the movie doesn’t age well, and with Carrey already a guaranteed box office draw by 1995, the sequel is even worse, turning to parody and…well, who cares?

This was the first sequel to feature Carrey (his only other being 2014’s Dumb and Dumber To) and by all accounts he had no desire to make it as the roles continued to pour in. Dumb and Dumber co-star Jeff Daniels described Carrey’s distaste for the movie and its horrendous depiction of native tribes. In the end, the actor was surprised that it wasn’t banned outright. Whether this was due to its disturbing racial elements or lousy material was never disclosed.

Following hit-and-miss comedies The Cable Guy and Liar Liar, Carrey would hang up his zany persona in favour of more serious roles, such as 1998‘s incredible reality TV satire The Truman Show, Andy Kaufman biopic Man on the Moon and Michel Gondry’s critically acclaimed sci-fi drama Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, proving that he was much more than a funny face.

Lower down the rental totem pole in May was Wes Craven’s comedy horror Vampire in Brooklyn, a movie that lead actor Eddie Murphy wrote the screenplay for, though his intention to portray stylish bloodsucker Maximillian as a vulnerable character was shot down by Craven, who instead insisted that the former stand-up powerhouse utilise his comedic talents. Such a conflict shows in what is a severely muddled effort.

Vampire in Brooklyn was Murphy’s last contractually obligated movie for Paramount in a deal that went all the way back to Walter Hill’s innovative buddy movie 48 Hrs. Speaking of the deal, Murphy would tell Rolling Stone magazine, “The only way I was able to do Nutty Professor and to get out of my Paramount deal, I had to do Vampire in Brooklyn. But you know what ruined that movie? The wig. I walked out in that longhaired wig and people said, “Oh, get the fuck out of here! What the hell is this?” Personally, I thought it looked pretty fly.

Vampire in Brooklyn features a who’s who of Craven cameos, including Jsu Garcia from A Nightmare On Elm Street, Mitch Pileggi of zany, late-80s slasher Shocker and Wendy Robie from horror/adventure mash-up The People Under the Stairs. A year later, Craven would utilise his horror/comedy desires to devastating effect with meta-infused game-changer Scream. Meanwhile, Murphy would enjoy success with his exploits as lovable Jekyll and Hyde variation Professor Sherman Klump, though his Paramount glory days would soon be but a distant memory.

A surprising late entry into the rental top 10 came in the form of Joseph Ruben’s long-forgotten buddy heist flick Money Train. Reuniting White Men Can’t Jump‘s once in a lifetime pairing of Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson, the movie would also introduce us to future international pop sensation and booty advocate Jennifer Lopez as a gorgeous Latino rookie who comes between our cop half-brothers.

Though the two actors put it all on the line, they suffer from an overabundance of wisecracks in an all-to-eager screenplay that fails to live-up to Ron Shelton’s court-bound classic. The movie is still worth a look for fans of the pairing, and its high position shows that audiences agreed, but it’s easy to see why it became lost in the VHS wastelands. In the words of Billy ‘hoe’, this one would rather win first and look good second.

Or is that the other way around?


  1. I viewed “Scream” and “The Craft” (I had a girlfriend in which that film spoke to; I’m more of a “Witchboard” guy), but I stayed away from obvious blockbusters such as “Twister” & “Independence Day” (I’m not that interested in tornados or UFO’s anyway). A few years ago, I did eventually view “Executive Decision” from this era, which I liked.


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