Arnie blockbusters, surprising sequels and Henenlotter nightmares. VHS Revival brings you all the retro movie news from June ’90
With summer just around the corner, moviegoers were gearing up for the silly season and a yearly dose of blockbuster cinema, and June would offer a peek at the kind of big-budget extravaganzas that lay ahead with mainstream schlock peddler Paul Verhoeven’s ultra-violent Arnie vehicle Total Recall, a movie that more than lived up to its considerable hype while strengthening the director’s growing reputation as Hollywood’s newest golden boy.
It is somewhat ironic that Verhoeven began his career as a serious, low-budget director in his native Netherlands, working with Blade Runner icon Rutger Hauer and bagging himself an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film with 1973‘s Turkish Delight, a movie shot by future Speed director Jan de Bont. Adding further irony was the fact that the similarly serious David Cronenberg was once tied to the effects-heavy, Phillip K. Dick adaptation also known as We Can Remember It For You Wholesale, a project that would remain in production limbo for some time.
Cronenberg would work on the screenplay for a year with Alien writers Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, a duo he felt had no idea what to do with their recently purchased property. During his time on the project, Cronenberg would deliver something much closer to the source material and felt things were going fine until Shusett informed him that they were instead looking for “Raiders of the Lost Ark Go to Mars”, one of many conflicting moments that ultimately led to him ditching the project.
Having smashed the mainstream with 1987‘s bloodthirsty satire Robocop — a film he initially had no interest in until his wife, who saw the project’s hidden potential, convinced him otherwise — Verhoeven was eventually brought on board to direct. This led to a similarly OTT gruefest, which though tapping into the kind of satire synonymous with Dick, favoured brawn over brains. In the realms of mindless, Hollywood entertainment that’s not a bad thing, and Verhoeven’s films would continue to reap the accolades, Total Recall receiving two Academy Award nominations for Best Sound and Best Sound Effects Editing, while also being honoured with an Academy Special Achievement Award for the movie’s groundbreaking special effects (Rob Bottin).
Though Cronenberg would go uncredited, many of the mutant characters on display were his, most notably body horror poster boy Kuato, a sentient Siamese twin who was the embodiment of Dick’s fascination with telepathy (the writer’s twin sister died shortly after birth).
With a gross of $261,400,000, Total Recall would dwarf its nearest June competitor by just short of $100,000,000.
New York born cult exploitation director Frank Henenlotter is never short of mind-boggling concepts, a fact proven by such films as 1982’s grungy and oddly poignant stop motion effects horror Basket Case and 1988’s Brain Damage, a film about an alien parasite with an appetite for brains and an hallucinogenic property with the power to enslave, but 1990’s absurd comedy horror Frankenhooker may well be his craziest. The movie is even revered by the great Bill Murray, who would tell audiences, “If you only see one movie this year, it should be Frankenhooker”, a quote proudly added to the movie’s equally nutty poster.
VERY loosely based on Mary Shelley’s class horror novel Frankenstein (Patty Mullen’s character is named Elizabeth Shelley), the film stars James Lorinz as Jeffrey, an inquisitive medical student who attempts to raise his girlfriend from the dead after she’s accidentally decapitated by a runaway lawnmower during a family cookout. Now there’s one for the cherished memories collection!
In order to do this, Jeffrey harvests limbs from the bodies of New York hookers, offing them with a powerful drug dubbed “super crack”, which when inhaled causes users to explodes into perfectly preserved body parts. I’ve seen some off the wall movies in my time, but that particular scene is one of the craziest I’ve personally ever witnessed. Mullen puts in an exquisitely bizarre turn as the titular Frankenhooker, who sets off on a rampage through the city until finally regaining her senses in time for the film’s beautifully perverted conclusion.
Frankenhooker inevitably ran into trouble with the Motion Picture Association of America, who were at pains to allow the movie an R rating. According to a 2013 interview with Henenlotter, the head of the ratings body would even call the director’s office, telling his secretary, “Congratulations, you’re the first film rated S.” Confused, the secretary asked, “S? For sex?”, to which he replied, “No, S for shit.” Unable to appeal to the MPPA’s liberal side (if such a thing exists), Frankenhooker was one of the last movies to be burdened by the dreaded X rating.
Surprisingly, critics were full of praise for Henelotter’s comically morbid outing. Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times called Frankenhooker a “hilarious, totally outrageous grin-and-gore comedy,” while Vincent Canby of The New York Times admired the film’s “legitimate sense of the absurd.”
With a limited release, Frankenhooker made $146,931 theatrically. A year later, the film was released on home video by low-budget distributor Shapiro-Glickenhaus Entertainment. The release featured an interactive box that, when pressed, triggered a recording of Mullen’s voice asking, “wanna date?!”
I wouldn’t say no.
Fresh off the heels of Beverly Hills Cop superstardom, controversial Hollywood a-lister Eddie Murphy would return to his buddy cop roots for 48 Hrs. sequel Another 48 Hrs. alongside Nick Nolte, with cult director Walter Hill back on board to direct.
This time, our racially-motivated odd couple reunite to take on a San Francisco drug lord known as The Iceman in what many, including Hill, feared would be a much softer film than the first, owing to the success of Axel Foley’s jovial, crowd-pleasing turn. It was in fact Murphy who wrote and pitched the story to Hill, one that the director was happy to make and which ultimately eclipsed its predecessor at the box office with a cumulative worldwide gross of approximately $152,000,000.
On his decision to return to the story, Hill would explain, “the plot – which Eddie suggested – is actually kind of intriguing. So why not do it?… A lot of folks will say I’m just doing it for the money. What I want to know is, why do they think I made the first one?”
Unfortunately, the movie was subjected to numerous cuts by Paramount, a gross slimming-down that left huge chasms in the plot. Feeling that, at well over two hours, Another 48 Hrs. would prove too much for the passive audience, the studio ordered that all behaviour, action and comedy be cut. As a result, the film’s running time plummeted from 145 minutes to 120 minutes, and then again to 95 minutes just prior to its release.
Blade Runner‘s Brion James, who played the role of The Iceman, was also miffed after Paramount decided to cut every one of his major scenes as a reaction to Total Recall‘s unbridled success, the movie making an incredible $25,533,700 during its first week, which had executives worried. “My stuff was in there until one week before the film opened; that is when they cut twenty-five minutes out of that movie, a week before it opened,” James would explain. “…I lost every major scene I had. That’s the last time I ever cared about a movie because I went to the press screening and it was like getting kicked in the stomach, seeing what is not there. I was the third lead and now I looked like a dressed extra. All the stuff that they had in the set-up, stuff in the trailer, all those scenes were gone.”
As for Murphy, his rising stock would see him demand a fee of $12,000,000 up front, as well as a rather healthy percentage of the film’s gross — quite the pay hike compared with the $200,000 dollars he was paid to star in the first movie. Murphy would later accuse Paramount of skimping on advertising, a suggestion that would lead to tension between the two parties. Paramount would of course refute Murphy’s claims.
The second biggest box office earner in June came in the form of Warren Beatty’s visually unique comic book crime caper Dick Tracy. Beatty’s second feature as director would benefit from a veritable who’s who cast that included Beatty himself as the eponymous Tracy, Al Pacino as funny-faced crime lord Alphonse “Big Boy” Caprice, Dustin Hoffman as vocally challenged henchman Mumbles and controversial pop sensation Madonna as noir dame Breathless Mahoney, the sole witness to a Caprice-led crime spree.
Beatty had been toying with a big screen adaptation for fifteen years to varying degrees in a project that was surprisingly difficult to get off the ground, a protracted period that would see the likes of Harrison Ford, Richard Gere, Tom Selleck and Mel Gibson considered for the role, with John Llandis, Walter Hill and even Martin Scorsese pegged as potential directors. Llandis would come closest until an accidental death on the set of Twilight Zone: The Movie forced him to step down. Robert De Niro was also considered for the part of ‘Big Boy’.
An incredible 53 interior and 25 exterior sets were constructed at Universal Studios in order to create the movie’s rich and colourful comic book aesthetic, Beatty restricting the palette to just seven colours, while prosthetic makeup designers John Caglione, Jr. and Doug Drexler, and costume designer Milena Canonero, stayed as loyal to cartoonist Chester Gould’s inimitable vision as possible, giving audiences a 1930s grotesquery of malformed crooks.
Disney’s high-concept promotion for the movie — which included Madonna’s 1990 Blond Ambition World Tour — would follow in the footsteps of Tim Burton’s 1989 blockbuster Batman, with Danny Elfman even brought in as composer. Though the movie was inevitably short in storytelling, Dick Tracy’s innovative aesthetics and use of matte paintings impressed critics across the board, leading Roger Ebert to proclaim, “Dick Tracy is one of the most original and visionary fantasies I’ve seen on a screen.” High praise indeed!
Winning three of an impressive seven Academy Award nominations — Best Art Direction, Best Makeup and Best Original Song — Dick Tracy is currently tied with Black Panther for the most Oscar wins for a comic book movie. The film would manage a US domestic gross of $103,738,726, with a worldwide gross of $162,738,726.
Fairing surprisingly less well was June 15 release Gremlins 2: The New Batch. With Gremlins director Joe Dante once again at the helm, the sequel would take a more family-friendly approach to the material, enlisting flavour-of-the-month celebrities such as then World Wrestling Federation champion Hulk Hogan as the studio flogged their cutesy protagonist Gizmo to the tween demographic. The film even features a meta scene involving renown critic Leonard Maltin relaying his criticisms of the original instalment.
Back in the mid-1980s, the Stephen Spielberg produced Gremlins would cause quite the stir with outraged parents concerned with the supposed family movie’s emphasis on horror. Then the most unconventional festive movie to date, Gremlins‘ original gang of ruthless critters took great joy in hanging the Peltzer family dog from some Christmas lights and sending resident miser Mrs Deagle careening through an upstairs window courtesy of a suped-up stair lift — though the latter fully deserved her ignominious fate thanks to a Dickensian tour de force of cruelty from actress Polly Holiday.
Juxtaposing a traditional, wholesome Christmas setting with a dose of deliciously dark humour, Gremlins rode such a thin line between comedy and horror that, along with Spielberg’s similarly dark Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, the film contributed to the Motion Picture Association of America’s newly founded PG-13 rating.
Dante, who was reluctant about being involved with a project that he saw as simply a cash venture, would later call Gremlins 2: The New Batch “one of the more unconventional studio pictures, ever,” one engineered by the director to include material that Warner Brothers may not have greenlighted had it not been for their desire to produce the money-spinning sequel that Dante had initially been less than receptive to, though it was all in vein.
Gremlins 2: The New Batch would tank at the box office, failing to break even after the commercial dust had settled, with a paltry gross of $41,482,207 from an estimated $50,000,000 budget. The sixth most popular of eight theatrical releases in June, the movie would go down as a spectacular misfire and was trailed only by Bill Cosby’s ludicrous, supernatural comedy Ghost Dad and low-key, romantic comedy Betsy’s Wedding.
Another sequel that failed to live up to its predecessor financially was The Empire Strikes Back director Irvin Kershner’s Robocop 2. A not disastrous profit margin of around $10,000,000 dollars would help soften the blow, but for a character of Robo’s potential, producers must have been left somewhat nonplussed by their inability to capitalise at the box office, though a cartoon spin-off and wholly inappropriate toy range would help to boost the coffers.
Robocop 2 retained the violence of the original movie, cheapening the satire with an often ludicrous comic book affair involving a gang of murderous, preteen drug pushers and a series of Robo replacement prototypes after a rogue OCP executive accidentally unleashes a murderous, drug-addicted droid on the citizens of old Detroit, a community ravaged by designer drug ‘Nuke’.
Interestingly, American comic book writer Frank Miller’s original screenplay for Robocop 2 was deemed “unfilmable”, and was subjected to so many rewrites it was almost unrecognisable before ultimately being handed over to Walon Green. Miller’s original script was the stuff of folklore until 2003 when Avatar Press finally dredged it from obscurity in the form of a comic book series titled Frank Miller’s Robocop. The series features many of the concepts featured in the film: Murphy’s battle with the remnants of his humanity, the technological meddling of Omni Consumer Products and the emergence of a troublesome Robocop Mark II.
Starring Manhunter‘s Tom Noonan as the deliciously deranged Cain, Robocop 2 suffers from a plethora of half-baked ideas, each delivered with the frenzied fervour of a Nuke addict leaping from one killing spree to the next, but in spite of its many flaws the movie is rather enjoyable as a silly slice of kitsch entertainment, and with advertisements for products such as Sunblock 2000 — a sun cream that promises to give you skin cancer — Kershner’s Dayglo social satire is definitely worth a look.
Three years later, the series would further pander to the peewee demographic with cultural marketing misfire Robocop 3, sacrificing the essence of the character, plunging Orion Pictures into financial disarray, and all but killing the franchise. Not that the 2014 reboot fared any better creatively.
Alan Alda, the star of hit Korean War comedy M*A*S*H, would return to theatres with his third and final movie as director in Betsy’s Wedding on June 22 with the poorly received romantic comedy Betsy’s Wedding.
Headlined by former John Hughes protege Molly Ringwald and featuring an all-star cast that included Raging Bull‘s Joe Pesci, Home Alone‘s Catherine O’Hara and Rocky‘s Burt Young, the film chronicles the trials and tribulations of a soon-to-be-wed couple pressured by Ringwald’s strapped-for-cash construction contractor, who feels they should have a lavish wedding instead of the small wedding the couple have settled one, a paper-thin premise which proves difficult to justify.
Loosely inspired by the 1950 Spencer Tracy film, Father of the Bride, Betsy’s Wedding was almost unanimously panned by critics. Roger Ebert wrote that the movie could have gone, “in a number of directions, toward sitcom, toward satire, even toward a tearjerking slice of life. But Alan Alda, who wrote and directed it and plays the proud father of the bride, prefers to play it mostly straight, and even pedestrian.” Rita Kempley was even more cutting, calling Alda’s directorial bow a “veil-thin opus” that is “narcissism flourishing like ragweed.” The film was based on Alda’s daughter’s real-life nuptials.
Despite the film’s critical lambasting, Betsy’s Wedding brought in a reasonable $19,740,070 for producer Martin Bregman and Touchstone Pictures.
Notorious sex offender and renown comedian Bill Cosby was responsible for June’s second most disappointing release from a commercial standpoint, though creatively, absurd fantasy comedy Ghost Dad was arguably the very worst.
Directed by none other then the legendary Sidney Poitier, an actor renown for being the the first black male and Afro-Bahamian actor to win the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role (The Defiant Ones), the film tells the story of Elliot Hopper, a widower and father of three struggling with his late wife’s healthcare debts who is suddenly killed in a car accident precipitated by a satanist taxi driver (really?). This leads to a relationship with paranormal researcher Sir Edith Moser (Ian Bannen), who manages to send Hopper back to reality in time to save his orphaned kids from financial ruin.
Originally scheduled to star Steve Martin, with The Hard Way‘s John Badham set to direct, Ghost Dad was penned by Field of Dreams writer Phil Alden Robinson under the pseudonym Chris Reese, and was even adapted for novelisation two weeks after its US release. Quite the read, I’m sure.
Criticism for Ghost Dad was harsh to say the least. Described by Roger Ebert as “a desperately unfunny film — a strained, contrived construction that left me shaking my head in amazement,” Cosby would also take much of the flack. As Vincent Canby of The New York Times would explain, “There once was a time when Bill Cosby was a very funny man, but television, like the devil, must be given its due… The old Bill Cosby was the irreverent, philosophical stand-up monologuist who used to wow them at the Apollo Theater with stories not always squeaky clean… Today Mr. Cosby is a public institution and, when he does comedy, is somewhat less fun than the New York Public Library. He seems always to be trying too hard to please without giving offense. He is less of a character than a self-packaged product.”
Later parodied by The Simpsons for its “Treehouse of Horror XI” episode, Ghost Dad would manage a healthy and very much undeserved $23,007,150 domestically.
June 27 would mark the release of a fourth huge blockbuster in as many weeks with Tony Scott’s Tom Cruise vehicle Days of Thunder. Produced by Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, the movie would reunite the Top Gun team for another high-octane outing which saw Cruise’s sports car driver Cole Trickle reach for NASCAR glory amidst the usual romance.
The movie is perhaps most famous for introducing Cruise to future wife Nicole Kidman, the two spending more than a decade together and adopting two children before ultimately parting ways. On her time spent with Cruise, Kidman would tell People Magazine, “I was so young when I got married. I had two kids by the time I was 27, and I’d been married for four years. But that’s what I wanted. I was so young. There is something about that sort of existence that, if you really focus on each other and you’re in that bubble, it’s very intoxicating, because it’s just the two of you. And there is only one other person that’s going through it. It brings you very close, and it’s deeply romantic.”
Running three months longer than originally planned, the expected budget would almost triple, the movie’s decadent producers spending an incredible $400,000 to convert a vacant storefront into a private gym and even handing out Donna Karan dresses to attractive women they would later invite to lavish parties. As a result, the movie would have to make more than $100,000,000 to break even by the time they were through— a rare gross back in 1990.
Fortunately, the movie smashed all expectations, raking in a whopping $157,670,733, making Days of Thunder the third highest-grossing movie released in June.
Only in Hollywood, baby.