VHS Revival brings you its monthly retro box office
When it comes to Brat Pack teen comedies, Greg Beeman’s License to Drive was late to the party, and watching it you certainly feel the fatigue of oversaturation. Thanks in large part to the films of John Hughes, the 80s were awash with growing pains nostalgia, and though their distinctly middle class issues meant very little to me as a young working class boy from the North of England, the humour was still universal enough to appeal. Movies such as Weird Science were key to my childhood, and Hughes knew how to speak the language of teenagers in a way that was rarely inauthentic or condescending.
I’m sure License to Drive is a similar staple to millions of thirty-somethings. It had familiar faces, reuniting Corey Feldman and Corey Haim of The Lost Boys fame, but asides from having a huge crush on the impossibly beautiful Heather Graham as the aptly named Mercedes Lane, and despite a cast who are alive with MTV zest, it was never high on my list of comfort movies. The fact that I have no interest in cars may go some way to explaining the extent of my apathy.
Feldman, who once again played second fiddle as best bud Dean, has since admitted to being devastated when Haim, his real-life best friend and fierce rival, beat him to the lead role of Les Anderson. This was fourth time Feldman had been ousted following similar casting experiences in Murphy’s Romance, Lucas, and The Lost Boys. Feldman’s 2020 documentary Truth: The Rape of Two Coreys, a film about exploitation and abuse in Hollywood, largely focuses on the pair’s time shooting License to Drive, an experience that directly contributed to Haim’s tragic drug addiction and subsequent death at the age of just 38.
Still, a movie about driving, girls, alcohol and the perils of being grounded ticked all the right commercial boxes back in 1988, a fact proven by the movie’s domestic box office gross of $22,433,275, a tidy sum for a production which cost somewhere in the region of $8,000,000.
Another sub-par effort released on July 6 was robotics comedy sequel Short Circuit 2, a movie Vincent Canby of The New York Times was particularly unimpressed with, writing, “For anyone over the age of 6, [Short Circuit 2] is as much fun as wearing wet sneakers”, and it’s difficult to argue, director Kenneth Johnson delivering an unbearably mawkish outing which expands on a story that quite frankly didn’t need expanding on.
Children under the age of 6, and probably some who were a tad older, would have lapped up the new adventures of Johnny Five in an era when Nintendo’s Robotic Operating Buddy, R.O.B., found itself in millions of homes across America, and to a lesser extent the UK. With his vaguely human characteristics, puerile wisecracks and a plethora of pop culture references, cinema’s most energetic robot was quite the draw for a younger audience unconcerned with predictable screenplays, myself included, though I do remember being deeply underwhelmed by Short Circuit 2, one of my first lessons in the horrors of anticlimax.
This time our mechanical scamp is manipulated by a gang of criminals who wouldn’t last five minutes in New York City’s real underworld, a fact punctuated by their plans to utilise a highly conspicuous, smart-alecky robot for a high-profile jewel heist. I’m sure it’ll all go swimmingly.
The figures were a fair reflection of the movie’s shortcomings, Short Circuit 2 managing a US domestic gross of $21,630,088 — disappointing numbers for a high-concept movie with a budget of approximately $15,000,000. Producers were initially keen on rehiring Steve Guttenberg as Newton Crosby from the first movie, though the actor declined, later admitting that he regretted turning down the movie after his mainstream stock plummeted.
Still a bullet dodged as far as I’m concerned.
July 8 would see the emergence of an unlikely sequel almost a decade in the making in Don Coscarelli’s action horror Phantasm II. Released way back in 1979, the original Phantasm was something of a head scramble, a barmy slice of hokum that plays out like a wild fever dream and has garnered a huge cult following in the decades since its release.
Phantasm II would also mark the return of one of horror’s most overlooked icons in Angus Scrimm’s gaunt and distinctly treacherous ‘tall man’, a lurching giant who once again leads a gang of bizarre minions through a plot of nonsensical treachery, utilising some rather nifty killer spheres that careen through the hallways of the infamous Morningside Cemetery, embedding themselves in the skulls of unsuspecting victims and drilling for brains the way barons drill for oil. This time protagonist Mike, unforgivably recast, is released from a mental asylum and immediately looks to put an end to the evil misdeeds of his nemesis in a sequel that incorporates a buddy element and is bigger, louder and gorier than its predecessor, taking its cue from action sequels of the era.
Initially reluctant to make a sequel to a movie that he regarded as being conclusive, writer-director Coscarelli eventually bowed to pressure and was rewarded with a $3,000,000 budget by Universal Studios, a former horror giant who desperately wanted a horror series on their roster, and who ultimately took creative control of the project, rejecting the kind of ethereal ambiguities that made the original so unique. Greg Nicotero and Robert Kurtzman, who would later join the wizards over at K.N.B. EFX, were put in charge of the film’s practical effects.
Phantasm II did reasonable numbers for such an obscure sequel, more than doubling its outlay with a US gross of $7,282,851, which speaks to the movie’s dedicated cult following. The series would spawn two more direct-to-video sequels, as well as a fifth movie as late as 2016, the latter even managing a small theatrical release.
“Dirty” Harry Callahan would return to theatres on July 13 in The Dead Pool, many critics citing the fourth and last sequel to the hit Dirty Harry series as the best entry since the original back in 1971. That’s almost two decades of precinct rebellion by the dirtiest cop in the business. Quite the survivor! The late Pulitzer Prize winning critic Roger Ebert would even go as far as to name The Dead Pool as being, “As good as the original. Smart, quick and made with real wit.”
For those who are familiar with The Dead Pool, the movie’s stand-out scene comes in the form of a novel car chase reminiscent of the Steve McQueen classic Bullitt that sees our gruff, no-nonsense protagonist pursued by a suped-up RC10 electric race buggy modified to explode when triggered, a scene buoyed by the musical contributions of composer Lalo Schifrin. Director Buddy Van Horn would hire 1985 off-road world champion R/C driver Jay Halsey to execute the scene, and the results, more in line with the gimmick-hungry 80s, are an absolute treat. I saw this scene as a seven-year-old and it’s something I will never forget.
The movie is also notable for an early cameo from future comedy headliner Jim Carrey, who makes the most of his brief screen time doing his best Steven Tyler impression as a rock star filming an Exorcist parody pop video. I’m sure this scene wasn’t intended to be as funny as it is in hindsight, but Carrey’s rubber-faced potential is there for all to see. He certainly made an impression on the veteran actor. Instead of auditioning his scene, Carrey would instead perform his Vegas Elvis Presley act, a comedic splurge that left Eastwood and his colleagues in hysterics, resulting in the young upstart’s immediate hiring.
Though derided by most as the worst in the series, The Dead Pool, a crowd-pleasing adventure stripped of the gritty sociopolitical aspects of previous instalments and the kind of movie Eastwood swore he would never subject Harry to, became the sixth highest grossing movie released in July with a total US box office gross of $37,903,295. Eastwood still retained a fondness for the movie, later explaining, “It’s fun, once in a while, to have a character you can go back to. It’s like revisiting an old friend you haven’t seen for a long time. You figure ‘I’ll go back and see how he feels about things now’.”
July 15 marked the release of two of the decade’s finest movies, though each would only receive limited theatrical releases initially, which explains their paltry opening weekends.
The first of those movies was John McTiernan’s innovative action spectacular Die Hard. The story of a New York cop trapped in a corporate skyscraper with a gang of international terrorists, the movie was originally set to star Arnold Schwarzenegger until Moonlighting star Bruce Willis turned a corner with his performance as John McClane, defying the typical late 80s muscles-to-burn template with his proletarian wit and everyman camaraderie. As much as I love Arnie, imagine him in Willis’ place! I’m sure we wouldn’t be talking about this movie in such seminal terms.
Back in 1988, Die Hard was high-tech action at its absolute finest, and not much has changed. McTiernan directed affairs as if his camera were a rocket launcher, and more than three decades later it is still arguably the genre’s high point, with believable action and heart by the burning elevator load. Part of its success it down to some impeccable casting, characters such as Bonny Bedelia’s steely matriarch Holly McClane and conflicted cop-turned-desk jockey Sgt. Al Powell putting the majority of action fodder to shame. Even side characters such as cocaine snorting ‘white knight’ Harry Ellis and happy-go-lucky limo driver argyle provide just the right amount of comic relief while never distracting us from the action.
Perhaps even more important are the movie’s bad guys. Granite henchman Carl is as memorable as most central antagonists, his side issue with McClane over the death of his brother adding an extra level of tension to the claustrophobic proceedings, and then you have possibly the finest villain in action movie history in the late Alan Rickman’s smug sophisticate Hans Gruber. It’s a dazzling performance for a thespian actor you wouldn’t imagine anywhere near a movie of this nature, but in many ways he steals the show.
Die Hard was the most successful movie released in July with a US gross $83,008,852 and a worldwide gross of $141,278,197— incredible when you consider that Willis was a relative unknown in Hollywood at the time. One thing you can be sure of: nobody left that cinema feeling short-changed.
The second of those movies featured a much more recognisable cast, though it was the film’s least known comedy performer who stole the show. Directed by veteran British director Charles Crichton, lured out of retirement by lead and writer John Cleese, A Fish Called Wanda is a madcap crime caper that pits America ostentation against British pomposity and absolutely revels in it. The movie’s stereotypes don’t exist anywhere in the world, but that is besides the point, and with fellow Python Michael Palin treating us to a very Python-esque series of sketches involving the accidental assassination of three unfortunate Yorkshire terriers, all you can do is succumb to the silliness.
On the American side of things, Jamie Lee Curtis puts in an incredibly assured comedy shift as a money-crazed harlot who pulls every trick in the book to escape with the loot, even going as far as to charm buttoned-down barrister Archie Leach out of his marriage, a move that results in one of the most unlikely and rewarding romantic pairings ever realised. There are too many comic highlights to list in a movie crammed with them, but very few will argue that Kevin Kline’s lunkheaded assassin Otto steals the show. I mean, how many actors have received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for such a ludicrous role? Very few as far as I can recall.
In Otto, Kline gives us a true comedy icon, a heartless assassin with a penchant for emotional torture who is as vacuous as he is pretentious. A scene in which he eats stuttering, animal lover Ken’s fish as a form of torture is comedy gold, as is his habit of getting high off the smell of his own armpits and bursting into a blind rage at being called stupid; this, from a man who has mistaken the London Underground for an an underground movement and who believes that the central message of Buddhism is every man for himself. Absolutely priceless!
The movie’s unsung hero came in the form of director Charles Crichton, a veteran filmmaker put out to pasture by an evolving industry that saw no place for his antiquated methods. Crichton’s previous movie, British crime drama He Who Rides the Tiger, had been made all the the way back in 1965, and at 78 the notoriously ruthless film business was hardly likely to give him a sentimental swansong based on past merit. Cleese, who was a big admirer, felt differently, and would even credit himself as co-director, a move that allowed Crichton to produce arguably his greatest work.
A Fish Called Wanda was the third most popular movie released in cinemas in July with a US gross of $62,493,712.
After a decade of serious roles, Robert De Niro would try his hand at comedy during the late 80s and early 90s with typical aplomb, starring in such classics as Martin Scorsese’s seriously dark The King of Comedy and John McNaughton’s crime caper Mad Dog and Glory, a movie produced by Scorsese as a way to bring back the long-ostracised McNaughton, who would struggle to find work on American shores thanks to a little movie known as Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, a grubby character study that wowed critics but failed to break through certain commercial barriers.
Of all those comedies, for pure belly laughs 1988’s Midnight Run was arguably the most enjoyable, thanks in large part to the immediate onscreen chemistry of De Niro and comedy actor Charles Grodin and memorable secondary turns from Yaphett Koto, a young Joe Pantoliano and Beverly Hills Cop‘s John Ashton as a bumbling rival bounty hunter looking to cash in on De Niro’s latest target.
Having just completed work on Brian De Palma’s prohibition crime drama The Untouchables, De Niro would approach director Penny Marshall about starring in Big (imagine that!), and though she was interested in working with arguably the greatest actor of his generation, producers decided on Tom Hanks and the rest is history. They were also keen on Robin Williams for Grodin’s role, but director Martin Brest insisted on Grodin based on his chemistry with Bob. It’s hard to believe that the manic Williams could have pulled off the subtle, likeable irritation that Grodin manages to conjure, which is key to the movie’s magic.
Though the screenplay is undeniably bloated and the pace somewhat stifling, the movie will be remembered for its perfect comedy pairing and would become the fifth highest grossing movie released that month, with a healthy domestic return of $38,413,606.
July’s third and final sequel is regarded by many as being one of the worst ever committed to celluloid, a feeling no doubt exacerbated by the fact that it’s antecedent is one of the best-loved cult comedies of the decade.
Caddyshack II was panned by audiences and critics alike for its uninspired screenplay and moribund direction, and the fact that the follow-up to such a bawdy classic was shackled with a PG rating certainly didn’t help. Not even an all-star cast that included such comic royalty as Randy Quaid, Dan Aykroyd and a returning Chevy Chase could save this one from the bunkers of mediocrity. No wonder Bill Murray is notable by his absence.
This time around, the daughter of a self-made millionaire hooks up with a silver spoon WASP girl, who convinces her and her crude father (Jackie Mason) to join their country club. Needless to say, the other members are unimpressed by his straight-shooting attitude and intrusive friendliness. I’ve leave the rest up to your imagination, and you won’t need very much of it. As you can probably guess, Dan Aykroyd is given gopher disposal duty in the absence of fellow Saturday Night Live alumni Murray.
The late Harold Ramis, director and co-writer of the original Caddyshack, would begin writing the sequel before ultimately dropping out. As he would explain in an interview with AV Club, “…with Caddyshack II, the studio begged me. They said, ‘Hey, we’ve got a great idea: ‘The Shack is Back!” And I said ‘No, I don’t think so.’ But they said that Rodney [Dangerfield] really wanted to do it, and we could build it around Rodney. Rodney said, ‘Come on, do it.’ Then the classic argument came up which says that if you don’t do it, someone will, and it will be really bad. So I worked on a script with my partner Peter Torokvei, consulting with Rodney all the time. Then Rodney got into a fight with the studio and backed out. We had some success with Back to School, which I produced and wrote, and we were working with the same director, Alan Metter. When Rodney pulled out, I pulled out, and then they fired Alan and got someone else [Allan Arkush]. I got a call from [co-producer] Jon Peters saying, ‘Come with us to New York; we’re going to see Jackie Mason!’ I said, ‘Ooh, don’t do this. Why don’t we let it die?’ And he said, ‘No, it’ll be great.’ But I didn’t go, and they got other writers to finish it. I tried to take my name off that one, but they said if I took my name off, it would come out in the trades and I would hurt the film.”
We still love you Harold.
Things would get marginally better on the 29th with Tom Cruise vehicle Cocktail. Co-starring Aussie import Bryan Brown as a ruthless shyster and dubious mentor to Cruise’s wet-behind-the-ears business student looking to make a million, Cocktail is the rather curious tale of two ‘flair bartenders’ who use their skills to pick up loose women, eventually moving to Jamaica where wealthy spinsters mean big bucks. That’s until love interest Jordan Mooney (Elisabeth Shue) drifts into his life to spoil the party.
Though the movie turns out to be surprisingly dark, it was criticised for its shallow screenplay and inability to tap into Cruise’s mainstream charms, and it’s hard to disagree. Only in the 80s could such a shallow concept be given the blockbuster treatment and exceed all commercial expectation. As emotionally stilted as Cocktail is, there’s no doubting its credentials as a kitsch time capsule for 80s excess, an era when bigger was better and personal glory was the name of the game. Still, you’ll need rose-tinted wayfarers and a hollowed-out pineapple libation to get through this one.
Ironically, the late Robin Williams, a known manic-depressive who would take his own life on August 11, 2014, was originally considered for the role of Brown’s Doug Coughlin, a character who eventually takes his own life when years of conman philandering and booze-soaked decadence inevitably catch up with him, resulting in a scene that seems utterly out of place for a movie headlined by a young heartthrob like Cruise.
Surprisingly, a film that was based on screenwriter Heywood Gould’s semi-autobiographical novel of the same name was originally set to be much darker until distributor Disney got involved and pushed for the movie to be more cinematic, something Gould was resistant to but ultimately agreed was the correct decision.
“They wanted movie characters. Characters who were upbeat and who were going to have a happy ending and a possible future in their lives,” Gould would explain in an interview with the Chicago Tribune. “That’s what you want for a big commercial Hollywood movie. So I tried to walk that thin line between giving them what they wanted and not completely betraying the whole arena of saloons in general.
Cruise was one of the hottest young stars in Hollywood in July 88 following a spate of blockbuster hits that included cult teen sex comedy Risky Business, MTV-styled power surge Top Gun and Martin Scorsese’s uniquely conventional pool hall drama sequel The Color of Money. It should come as no surprise that Cocktail was second only to Die Hard in the Box Office charts for July, bringing in a cool $78,222,753, with a rather impressive opening weekend of $11,789,466 — the best by some margin. Never underestimate the pull of star power.