Postmodern vampires, knockout babes and amnesiac ninjas, VHS Revival brings you all the retro movie news from August ’85
1985 was a momentous year for the notoriously tricky horror comedy genre and August gave us two of the era’s most lauded. The first of those movies, released on August 4, was Tom Holland’s delicious vamp slayer send-up Fright Night.
Starring a superlative Roddy McDowall as a thespian ham facing unemployment in an era of slasher bedlam, the movie tells the story of Charlie Brewster, a young horror obsessive who becomes convinced that his suave neighbour, Jerry Dandridge, is an 80s incarnation of Nosferatu responsible for a series of unexplained murders. The fact that McDowall’s Peter Vincent character shares his name with two of horror’s most famous vampire killers should give you some indication of the film’s jovial tone.
That’s not to say Fright Night doesn’t offer some genuine scares. Brewster’s situation worsens when Dandridge catches on to his mischievous meddling and receives a domestic invite from his immediately smitten single mother, giving Dandridge free reign on the Brewster household and making Charlie and his friends fair game — particularly sweetheart Amy Peterson (Amanda Bearse), who just happens to hold a rather striking resemblance to Dandridge’s long-lost love.
Chris Sarandon, who was initially dubious about starring in a horror picture, is a revelation as toothy suburbanite Dandridge: handsome, debonair and able to operate with impunity in a society that looks for the madman in the hockey mask rather than the Gothic traditions of yore. The movie is also buoyed by a series of superlative practical effects and a searing synth soundtrack by Terminator composer Brad Fiedel, who perfectly encapsulates Dandridge’s suave wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Child’s Play writer/director Holland has proven himself one of the best at balancing horror with comedy, and though Fright Night seems to lurk in the shadow of The Lost Boys in terms of iconic 80s vampire flicks, the movie is much more skilfully defined and respectful to the genre it so cutely lampoons. Comedies of this nature are rare in today’s shock-driven climate, but Fright Night is one of the finest films the horror comedy genre has to offer.
Audiences agreed. Fright Night would prove the third highest-grossing film released in August, with a healthy opening weekend of $6,118,543 and a US domestic gross of $24,922,237. “Fright Night is not a distinguished movie,” wrote Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times, perfectly encapsulating the movie, “but it has a lot of fun being undistinguished”.
Italian horror maestro Dario Argento would return to theatres on August 1 with cavalier fantasy giallo/slasher Phenomena. Later released in the United States under the title Creepers, the movie was widely criticised for its scattergun plotting, meandering pace and the kind of second-rate acting that critic Kim Newman described as, “astonishingly awful”. The Guardian would go as far as to criticise the innovative director himself, describing the movie as “Argento at his most throwaway”. Ironically, Argento cites Phenomena as a personal favourite from his long and distinguished catalogue of works.
I must say, I have to agree with Argento. Is Phenomena harebrained on occasion? Absolutely. Does it lose the plot both literally and figuratively? Quite frequently. But as a mad spectacle of grisly deaths, elegant lighting and switchblade-wielding chimpanzees, it is a rather beautiful experience that wows on a purely aesthetic level.
The film also gives us one hell of a juxtaposing soundtrack, the director’s decision to ditch Goblin convention for a more US-friendly OST that features the likes of Iron Maiden an inspired creative and commercial decision, though Goblin do treat us to a suitably erratic theme that bounces off the walls like Beelzebub’s spawn pepped-up on glucose.
Phenomena, inspired by the fact that insects are sometimes used to establish a murder victim’s time of death, is typically potty. Jennifer Connelly plays Jennifer Corvino, a young girl with a rather special affinity with the insect world whose powers are used to unravel a series of unexplained murders in and around a Swiss boarding school. Her telepathic abilities soon grab the attention of wheelchair-bound forensic entomologist John McGregor (Donald Pleasence), leading her on a path of macabre splendour that becomes progressively erratic and as a result increasingly beguiling.
The madness didn’t stop in the realms of fantasy. The chimpanzee used in the movie, who actually becomes a fictional hero of sorts, bit Connolly on the finger after Argento asked her to place a hand on the primate to stop is from turning around during filming. The animal remained hostile throughout filming, and in a strange way it comes through, only adding to the film’s unique frenzy.
As you would expect from Argento, there are also some rather spectacular set-pieces that will please genre fans no end, but also an emphasis on child-led fantasy, a startling matrimony of genres that negates the movie’s sometimes heedless plotting, resulting in the kind of cavalier filmmaking that will forge both enemies and allies.
John Hughes would return to theatres mere months after his cult detention smash The Breakfast Club with surreal teen comedy Weird Science, a movie that acts as the perfect platform for Hughes go-to brat pack extraordinaire Anthony Michael Hall.
Tapping into the hormonal frustrations of middle-class teens relegated to the doldrums of high school geekery, the film would parody Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein by having our two male leads create a flesh goddess on sidekick Wyatt’s home computer, which were promoted as having limitless powers back when such technology was a complete mystery to the majority of moviegoers.
Weird Science would also introduce a generation of horny teens to the aesthetic majesty that was supermodel Kelly Le Brock, her surprisingly inspired turn as the anarchic, strong-willed Lisa going against the chauvinistic grain. Though created as a veritable sex toy for our women-repellent duo, Lisa’s ultimate goal is to have Gary and Wyatt impress their peers based on who they are not what they can give them. This sees them winning the hearts of Deb and Hilly, two teenage sweethearts under the thumb of high school convention and self-serving Alpha Males Ian and Max, played with glorious arrogance by familiar ’80s faces Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Rusler.
Weird Science also benefits from an astonishing turn from the late, great Bill Paxton as Wyatt’s douchebag older brother, Chet, in what many believe to be his greatest ever performance. Paxton lends his moronic touch to a supporting role that threatens to eclipse the entire movie as the oppressive sibling from hell, a misogynistic buzz cut with a penchant for extortion whose every misguided philosophy and moronic belch is transformed into pure comedy gold.
Hughes was at his commercial zenith during the mid-1980s, his understanding of the way teenagers think, feel and act never keener. Not all critics were enamoured with Hughes’ newest adolescent splurge, however. Variety saw the film as something of a missed opportunity, writing, “‘Weird Science’ is not nearly as weird as it should have been and, in fact, is a rather conventional kids-in-heat film, and a chaste one at that. Director-writer John Hughes squanders the opportunity to comment on the power struggle between the sexes for a few easy laughs.”
The Chicago Tribune’s Gene Siskel was equally damning in his appraisal. “What a disappointment ‘Weird Science’ is!” he would write. “A wonderful writer-director has taken a cute idea about two teenage Dr. Frankensteins creating a perfect woman by computer and turned it into a vulgar, mindless, special-effects-cluttered wasteland.” Not for the first time, long-time peer and TV co-host Roger Ebert would disagree, praising the film as being, “funnier, and a little deeper, than the predictable story it might have been.”
The fifth most successful movie released in August, Weird Science would manage a US domestic gross of $23,834,048.
By the mid-1980s, College campus high-jinks flicks had long-surpassed oversaturation, and it’s easy to see why. First of all, they were relatively cheap to make and almost guaranteed a profit, which is music to the ears of any producer looking to churn out a quick and easy hit. Second, the material doesn’t have to be refined. When all your target audience desires is a little toilet humour and nudity there’s no need to push the boat out. It’s a bonus if you happen to create a star, à la Tom Hanks in Bachelor Party, but if the movie turns out to be pants, then so be it.
Released on August 7, 1985‘s Real Genius was a campus flick with a twist. The movie would star a young Val Kilmer, who after turning down a part in Francis Ford Coppola’s hard-hitting teen drama The Outsiders and landing the lead in lesser-known Zucker/Abrahams spoof Top Secret!, would tackle the role of a slacker genius-come-government-stooge who unwittingly agrees to create a space shuttle-mounted laser for use in political assassinations, until ultimately getting wise and jeopardising the whole sordid plot.
Such a tale allows for the kind of conflict and character development rarely glimpsed in such a low-brow sub-genre, though some were unconvinced. The Washington Post’s Rita Kempley was distinctly unimpressed, explaining that “badly written” scenes “fail to fulfil their screwball potential”. Roger Ebert would instead praise the movie for its ability to persuade audiences that “the American campus contains life as we know it”, and by that point many were in need of convincing.
Director Martha Coolidge was certainly aiming higher and would set out to make a movie that deserved more than our derision. “The audience has a kind of sixth sense, they know when they’re being lied to,” she would explain. “I was taken by the story from the start; I’m fascinated by science. But I knew that to make the comedy work — and the characters worth caring about — we had to do our homework”.
In the end, the movie would market itself as one thing while providing us with something else entirely — a surefire way to alienate your target audience. The figures were indicative of this, Real Genius managing $13,000,000 domestically for an overall profit of $5,000,000 — hardly figures worth writing home about.
Comedy legend Carl Reiner would cast would cast Saturday Night Live sensation John Candy in the lead role of critical flop Summer Rental, released on August 9. The story of an overworked air traffic controller subjected to a series of farcical mishaps during a family beach vacation, the film was the first starring vehicle for the inimitable Candy, who Reiner would describe as, “a small, beautiful painting in a large frame.”
Summer Rental was one of three films released that summer to star the burgeoning actor, two of which released in August, with Richard Pryor’s rags-to-riches comedy Brewster’s Millions already under his belt. It was also the first of two consecutive Carl Reiner films featuring the word Summer in the title, the second being 1987’s romantic comedy Summer School starring Mark Harmon as a gym teacher toiling with a remedial class in his pursuit of tenure.
Perhaps acknowledging the negative reception towards his first starring role, Candy would later reference his character, Jack Chester in 1988’s cult National Lampoon‘s comedy The Great Outdoors, another movie based on vacational mishaps. The scene in question sees Dan Aykroyd’s Roman Craig call Candy’s Chet Ripley “Chester”, only for Candy to retort, “Don’t call me Chester! Call me that one more time and you’re gonna go home with a dent in your forehead!” The film would also star future Goonies heartbreaker Kerri Green.
Despite almost universal negative press, Summer Rental fared much better commercially, ranking second during its first weekend and experiencing a second financial surge after a mid-month falter, making a further $2,800,000 during its sixth and final weekend for a total US domestic gross of $24,700,000.
With Fright Night already in the bag, things were about to get a whole lot better for the horror comedy genre. August 16 would mark the release of Alien writer Dan O’Bannon’s anarchic zombie spoof The Return of the Living Dead. A cute send-up of George A. Romero’s ‘Living Dead’ films, O’Bannon’s alternative take starred future Tommy Jarvis Thom Matthews as a medical supplies warehouse clerk, who, along with foreman Frank, unwittingly awakens the dead via a mysterious toxic chemical known as Trioxin 5.
This leads to a rather familiar turn of events that pay due homage to Romero’s walking dead, but in spite of the movie’s openly derivative formula, The Return of the Living Dead was actually something of an innovator, introducing fresh tropes to the sub-genre, such as zombies that run in pursuit of their prey rather than amble. It also introduced the now synonymous concept of a zombie specifically targeting brains rather than human flesh, while removing the head of a zombie was no longer enough. Why? Because it made for great comedy.
Such ingredients were sure to please genre buffs worldwide, and of all the 80s horror flicks that have fallen headlong into the realms of fandom, Return of the Living Dead is up there with the most revered, thanks in no small part to its rebel wit and punk aesthetic. The film also features an iconic dance from B-movie scream queen Linnea Quigley, who has arguably never looked sexier. So strong is The Return of the Living Dead‘s cult following that one fan began a petition to have the movie transferred to DVD in the wake of VHS obsolescence and even contacted O’Bannon directly, a move which saw the filmmaker approach owners MGM personally. If it wasn’t for that particular admirer, the movie may not have made it past home video purgatory. Scary to think.
Despite its niche appeal, The Return of the Living Dead did pretty healthy numbers for such a modest production, with an opening weekend of $4,403,169 and a US domestic gross of $14,237,880. The series would match Romero’s trilogy with two increasingly inferior sequels that included cult body horror director Brian Yuzna’s creative misfire Return of the Living Dead 3, a movie that would keep the series well and truly underground. And not in a good sense.
The 16th would also play host to the second of John Candy’s two August releases. Reuniting Candy with the red-hot Tom Hanks (the two had previously starred together in 1984’s fantasy romcom Splash alongside Daryl Hannah), Nicholas Meyer’s Volunteers, co-starring Hanks’ future wife Rita Wilson, is the tale of a runaway rich kid, on the run from gambling debts, who replaces his roomate as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Thailand’s Golden Triangle, where valuable life lessons are inevitably learnt. Hanks met Wilson for only the second time while filming the movie. They were married three years later.
The film would receive widespread criticism for its very deliberate and underhanded use of product placement, Wilson drinking from a Coca-Cola bottle in a scene that is nothing short of a glorified commercial. This should come as no surprise since the Volunteers was made by TriStar Pictures, a division of Columbia Pictures which was owned by the Coca-Cola Company, though according to screenwriter Ken Levine it was all an unfortunate coincidence.
“We wrote that Coke scene in the first draft, 1980,” Levine would reveal. “It stayed in every draft and wound up on the screen. Originally, the movie was set up at MGM. After a couple of years, it went into turnaround, finally landing at HBO Silver Screen in partnership with TriStar. This was 1984. TriStar was a division of Sony, as was the Coca-Cola Company. No one from the studio ever asked that that scene be in. No one from the studio ever mentioned that scene period. A year later, the film was released, and we walked into a major shitstorm. I look back and think, all of this could have so easily been avoided if he just offered her a joint”.
In what is essentially a spoof movie, Candy plays the passenger from hell, a role he would later perfect in John Hughes’ touching festive comedy Planes, Trains and Automobiles alongside fellow comedian Steve Martin, performance that many believe to be the late actor’s finest hour, but it was Hanks that would receive the plaudits for a movie that proved rather middling critically, Walter Goodman of The New York Times, praising the actor as a “a center of confidence amid the frantic goings-on, turning peril into opportunity with an accent and aplomb that are the birthright of an eighth-generation Bourne.”
Volunteers would manage a US domestic gross of $19,875,740
Academy Award winning director Michael Cimino (The Deer Hunter) would return to theatres with neo-noir crime thriller Year of the Dragon on August 16, a film that would polarise critics due to its sensitive content.
Starring headline heartthrob Mickey Rourke as a police detective investigating gangland activity in the Chinese mafia, the film would would make the wrong kind of waves at the following year’s Razzie Awards, landing nominations for Worst Screenplay, Worst Picture, Worst Director, Worst Actress and Worst New Star (Ariane), though the film was also nominated for two Golden Globes for Best Supporting Actor (John Lone) and Best Original Score (David Mansfield). The film is a personal favourite of one Quentin Tarantino.
Asian communities in the US would protest the movie for its flagrant racial stereotyping and xenophobic tendencies, issues that critics would immediately pick up on. Cimino’s film “Year of the Dragon” and Sheila Benson’s review of it, are both travesties of information,” wrote actress and director Mariko Tse. “Benson implicates her woeful lack of knowledge of any Chinatown by calling the film ‘part documentary.’ Year of the Dragon is about as much a documentary as is a soft drink commercial.”
Cimino unsurprisingly had a different take on Benson’s Year of the Dragon review, saying, “Interestingly enough, one of the few positive reviews we got was from someone who generally hates all my work, Sheila Benson. Because she’s married to a Chinese man. And she wrote a very interesting reaction to this, because she was stunned at seeing things that she knew were real. See the one thing Sheila Benson got was the exploitation of Asians, by Asians. Of Chinese by Chinese, and that, she said, was the first time she had seen something like this.”
Screenwriter Oliver Stone agreed to take a pay cut for his work on the movie under the proviso that producer Dino De Laurentiis would later fund his soon-to-be critically acclaimed Vietnam movie Platoon, though he would later renege on the deal due to difficulties landing distribution deals. Ironically, Platoon’s success with Orion Pictures proved yet another nail in the coffin for the producer’s filmmaking empire, which would crumble soon after.
Year of the Dragon would manage a US domestic gross of $18,707,466 and a worldwide gross of $30,400,000.
Long before he was anointed the prince of ’90s alternative romcom, thanks to starring roles in Americanized Nick Hornby adaptation High Fidelity and black assassination farce Grosse Point Blank, John Cusack would find his feet in the teen arena, returning for his second silver screen lead as growing pains heartthrob Lane Meyer — this only months after starring alongside fashion model Nicollette Sheridan in Rob Reiner’s coming of age comedy The Sure Thing in what would prove a busy and significant year for the prodigious actor.
Savage Steve Holland’s Better Off Dead tells a similar story to Reiner’s The Sure Thing, Cusack’s recently dumped Meyer spiralling into depression after blonde babe Beth, played by A Nightmare On Elm Street‘s Amanda Wyss, runs off with the high school jock. This leads to an unforeseen romance with a comparatively mousy (but equally beautiful) French foreign-exchange student named Monique (Diane Franklin), a less idealistic vision who teaches our young protagonist the true meaning of love.
The movie also provides a warts-and-all critique of the modern suburban family and its various inadequacies, one punctuated by a series of failed suicide attempts from our confused adolescent in a rather macabre development that was semi-autobiographical according to the film’s director, who described his own real-life suicidal tendencies after his high school sweetheart ditched him for the captain of the ski team. Ski team? Really?
This was about the only thing Holland and Cusack had in common, the latter furiously removing himself from a screening after barely twenty minutes. Speaking of the incident, Holland would explain, “The next morning [Cusack] basically walked up to me and was like, ‘You know, you tricked me. Better Off Dead… was the worst thing I have ever seen. I will never trust you as a director ever again, so don’t speak to me.’ Unfortunately, Cuscask was already contracted to appear alongside Demi Moore in Holland’s next movie One Crazy Summer.
Panned by critics for its tired genre regurgitation, Better Off Dead managed a mediocre US box office gross of $10,297,601. I’ll bet that pleased Mr. Cusack no end.
Another teen movie to underwhelm in August was Michael J. Fox high school sports comedy Teen Wolf, which could technically pass as a horror comedy, though the month’s other releases only served to highlight its inadequacies. It didn’t help that Robert Zemeckis’ cultural phenomenon Back to the Future was released just a few short months later, launching Fox to superstardom and leaving its predecessor burning in a trail of time-travelling flames.
Fox plays Scott Howard, a middling high school kid who wows the ladies after inheriting his father’s werewolf gene and dominating the basketball league (just take a moment to process that), becoming the focal point of yet another morality tale about a hormonal teen looking for love in the wrong place, before ultimately realising the error of his ways. This time the blonde bombshell in question is popularity hound Pamela (Lorie Griffin), who ditches high school hunk Mick as soon as Fox’s hairier incarnation becomes the talk of the classroom. And who said beauty was only skin deep! Standing in their way is long-time friend Boof, whose goofy name should tell you everything you need to know about that particular character.
Another obstacle comes in the form of petty high school principle Thorne, who holds a grudge against Howard based on an old beef with father Harold (James Hampton), knowing what it’s like to feel the sting of a follically rampant Alpha male in an environment where popularity is everything. Why Howard is allowed to participate in competitive sports with such a vast and potentially dangerous advantage is never explained, nor is the reason why government officials don’t cart him off in a van for testing and lifelong quarantine, but I suppose I’m just nitpicking (pun intended).
Of those who starred in Teen Wolf, only Fox was able to flourish in the movie’s aftermath (thanks to the immediate distraction that was Back to the Future fever, no doubt), the rest of our young and hopeful cast fading into relative obscurity, which should give you some idea of the movie’s critical success. Still, if you’re anything like me, the sight of Fox ‘Surfin’ USA’ on top of the ‘Wolfmobile’ will provide you with a heady shot of ’80s nostalgia.
By 1985, Israeli cousins Golan-Globus were riding high in Hollywood after capitalising on the VHS boom with meagre productions built on bottom-rung scripts and a quite incredible output, the kind that would see them collaborate with the likes of Sylvester Stallone and Chuck Norris as they grew and grew in ambition, even working in collaboration with Warner Brothers for Sly vehicles Cobra and Over the Top before the studio grew wise to their increasingly controversial and cavalier methods.
Norris was originally set to star in cult Cannon martial arts vehicle The American Ninja before refusing the part out of protest for having to cover his face with ninja regalia. What a diva! Luckily for us, Golan-Globus replaced Norris with Bachelor Party‘s Michael Dudikoff, who would forge one of B-movie cinema’s best-loved double acts alongside brick shithouse Steve James, and it all began with Sam Firstenberg’s irresistibly second-rate actioner.
The American Ninja would forge four sequels between 1987 and 1993, American Ninja 5 starring none other than The Karate Kid‘s Pat Morita, but it was the high-kicking tandem of the first two movies that brought joy to a generation of peewee martial artists looking to choreograph their own second-rate productions, most of which probably featured more blood than the notoriously cheap tale of an amnesiac soldier forced to uncover a top-secret ninja operation on an exotic island.
Two years later, Golan-Globus would live up to their reputation as Hollywood’s foreign agent of excess by plunging their money into a mainstream venture that included monumental flop Masters of the Universe and Superman IV: The Quest For Peace, movies that were supposed to announce Cannon Films as major players but ultimately resulted in their bankruptcy. If you haven’t already, I suggest you see Mark Hartley’s wonderfully enlightening documentary Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films. They don’t make them like Menahem Golan.
Good stuff; I didn’t view “Runaway” in its entirety until last year, but I quite liked it. Am I wrong, or did “The Flamingo Kid” have odd, stretchy aspect ratio to it? Maybe it was just the version I saw. Good film though.
It’s not you. I thought the same about The Flamingo Kid. Unless we saw an identical copy. Runaway is so much fun. So silly. I wrote an article on the movie for the site a few months back. Crichton was such an innovator but this one fell into obsolescence almost immediately. Absolutely love how naff it is though.