In honor of the 2014 summer movie season, Team HitFix will be delivering a mini-series of articles flashing back to key summers from years past. There will be one each month, diving into the marquee events of the era, their impact on the writer and their implications on today's multiplex culture. We continue today with a look back at the summer of 1984.
I turned 14 on May 26, 1984, just as the summer movie season was getting started.
These days, the summer movie season seems to begin in mid-March, and I think it's because studios want real estate that they can own. And it feels like the appetite for event films is something the audience has year-round now, so if you're able to make something that excites the audience, why not find a place for it where it's not going head to head with all the other giant event films of the year?
For the purposes of this piece, we're going to consider everything from the first weekend of May to the middle of August, where it felt like they wrapped up the summer releases. 1984 was a fairly strong year, with some big highs, some ridiculous lows, and a ton of movies that stood out in one way or another. I count at least 14 movies that I genuinely love that came out during that summer, and I am surprised how vivid my memories still are of the time I spent in the theaters during those 15 weekends.
May kicked off with “Sixteen Candles,” a movie that took me by surprise. I was already aware of John Hughes as a writer, and 1983's “National Lampoon's Vacation” was a favorite of mine. But I don't think I'd ever seen a high school film quite like what he did with “Candles,” and it was an amazing feeling, seeing kids who felt real and unlike the normal kids in movies. The way they talked, the things they talked about, the way Hughes captured the feelings of being a dork… it was lively in a way I could barely articulate at the time. It felt new, and it was thrilling. That same weekend, the ridiculous teen sex comedy “Hardbodies” also came out, as did the big budget stinker “The Bounty,” with Anthony Hopkins and Mel Gibson in a retelling of the story dramatized most famously in “Mutiny On The Bounty.” In a situation that paralleled the way studios still do things now, everyone was scrambling to make or release a film that had something to do with rap and break dancing, and the first one out of the gate was “Breakin',” which I remember seeing with a group of friends, alternately laughing at the film and gasping at some of the moves on display.
The second weekend in May was a big one for me, but I ended up disappointed in both of the films that came out. I was a rabid Stephen King freak by that point, and I wanted “Firestarter” to be great. It was not. Instead, it was one of those moments where I realized just how hard it seems to be for Hollywood to get an adaptation right. I hadn't read the novel “The Natural” was based on, so I didn't have any comparison to make. I thought it was a beautiful film, if dull, and over time, I've come to appreciate the score and the photography if nothing else.
Two more forgettable comedies hit the following weekend, and I'm not sure anyone today would have any reason to remember “Finders Keepers” or “Makin' The Grade.” But by that point, I was rabid about what was coming the following week, and when “Indiana Jones and the Temple Of Doom” hit theaters on Memorial Day weekend, it kicked off my thirty-year attempt to get my head around how I feel about the movie overall.
June kicked off with a bang for me. Sergio Leone's “Once Upon A Time In America” is still a problematic film, even now after all of the efforts to restore it to his original vision, but it's a big beautiful mess of a movie, and at 14, it was an overwhelming theatrical experience. I was eager to see “Star Trek III: The Search For Spock” and see how they followed up one of 1982's biggest surprises. It struck me as a less complete film when I saw it, but still fun in its way. The Klingons were good and nasty, and I have an unabashed fondness for anything involving Christopher Lloyd. I wasn't crazy about them hitting a reset button so soon after killing Spock, but it seemed inevitable. For me, the movie of the weekend was “Streets Of Fire,” and I remember walking out convinced that it was going to be a big ol' monster hit. After all, MTV was showing the video for “I Can Dream About You” in heavy rotation, and it was such a slick, cool-looking film that I was sure people were going to show up in droves. That was not the first time I was mistaken about how many people would end up going to see a Walter Hill movie, nor was it the last, but that summer, my shameless Diane Lane crush kept me going back to see the film repeatedly.
The second weekend of June was by far the biggest of the summer in terms of movies that became a permanent part of the film geek firmament. While MGM tried to get into the breakdancing game with “Beat Street,” everyone was busy with two other films. “Gremlins” accelerated the talk that had started with “Temple Of Doom” about how the ratings system seemed broken, upsetting parents who found the film too creepy and violent to be a PG. And while I really liked “Gremlins” and its rowdy sense of dark humor, the film that landed on me like a ton of bricks was “Ghostbusters.” I saw the film on a Saturday afternoon, and the next day, I had to leave for a two week stay at Skymont, a Boy Scout camp. I was one of the few kids who managed to see both “Gremlins” and “Ghostbusters” before I left for camp, and so for those two weeks, I was able to share my impressions of the film to my increasingly rabid friends. It was an incredible currency to possess, and by the time I finally got home, “Ghostbusters” had become a phenomenon.
One of the things I remember most vividly about that summer was it was the first time I had unfettered access to R-rated movies thanks to the older brothers of several of my friends. The older brothers were ushers at the various movie theaters in the area, and they were perfectly happy to let us spend a day hopping from one theater to the next, ratings be damned. So while not every kid my age could say the same, I saw “Pope Of Greenwich Village” opening night and fell head over heels in love with it. It was such a brash, funny, vulgar movie, and Mickey Rourke was seedy charisma incarnate. That same weekend, I also went to see “Top Secret!”, the insane Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker comedy that first introduced Val Kilmer, and I laughed so hard the first time that I had to go back the next day to see it again. Even now, I think it's my favorite of the films those guys made. I love the insane mix of WWII action films and Elvis musicals, and it felt like they were willing to do anything for a laugh.
The box-office titan that weekend, though, was “The Karate Kid,” and this was one of those moments where I felt like I was totally out of step with other people. I saw it and thought it was fine. It didn't blow me away, I certainly didn't imagine that it would become one of the biggest hits of the year. I thought Ralph Macchio was flat out perfect the year before in “The Outsiders,” but I didn't buy him as a physical force to be reckoned with. Admittedly, that's sort of the point of casting him, but at that age, all I knew was that I didn't think he was cool enough, and it just wasn't for me.
I found myself starting to really question the notion of sequels thanks to several in a row that felt like they just didn't work. “Cannonball Run II,” which was a sequel to a film that wasn't very good in the first place, was annoying and dull, no matter how many people they packed into it, and “Conan The Destroyer” made me actively angry. The first “Conan” had been an important movie for me, and it felt like “Destroyer” betrayed everything that was great about it. I remember walking out of it furious, disgusted by what they'd done to the character. Even “The Muppets Take Manhattan” felt to me like a lesser effort, a pale version of what had seemed so fresh just a few years earlier.
I was already a Tom Hanks fan at that point thanks to “Bosom Buddies,” but “Splash” had been a huge, surprising spring hit, and “Bachelor Party” seemed to confirm Hanks as pretty much the prototypical '80s comedy lead. He was like the less malevolent version of Michael Keaton, and while “Bachelor Party” wasn't a very good movie, it seemed completely out-of-control and filthy to me at the age of 14, and my friends and I took special pride out of being able to say we'd seen the film that no one else's parents would let them see.
One of the reasons I was most excited about “The Last Starfighter” was because of the pre-release hype about how the visual effects had all been created by a computer. It may seem today to be so commonplace as to not be worth mentioning, but at that point in the '80s, the idea of a movie with effects that were made by a computer was tantalizing. What did that mean? What would they look like? The answer turned out to be “oddly textureless cartoons,” but it was still exciting. I liked the film way more than I liked the effects, and I particularly loved seeing Robert Preston in it. He'd made a huge impression on me in “Victor/Victoria,” and that had led me to “The Music Man,” and I was happy to see him get another chance to charm. I was a fan of the way it repurposed the King Arthur myth for the arcade age, and while the effects have aged badly, the film still played like gangbusters for my own nascent film nerds when we tried it a while ago.
There were some big disappointments for me that summer besides the terrible sequels I saw. I got rooked into seeing “Best Defense,” which seemed to be remarkably light on Eddie Murphy screen time despite him being on the poster. I was a Cheech & Chong fan already, and I loved most of their movies. “The Corsican Brothers” was terrible, though, and felt like watching one of the late-era Three Stooges films where the guys were too old and it all just felt wrong. One of the weirdest disappointments for me was “Electric Dreams,” a film that sounded like it was going to right up my alley. It was sold as a stylish romantic film about a computer that comes to life and comes between his owner and the girl of his dreams, and they leaned heavily on the soundtrack and on the music video background of Steve Barron, the director. I remember sitting in the theater in shock at how incoherent the film was, especially after I had pushed my buddies to see that instead of another movie that opened the same weekend.
The next night, we went back to see that other film, which was “Revenge Of The Nerds,” which we loved. That movie was a huge charge of rowdy energy, and it felt like a really fun response to the typical teen movie. Looking at “Nerds” and “Sixteen Candles” now, I feel a little queasy about the way those movies handle race and sexuality and the way they both have disturbing rapey moments that really can't be read as anything but sexual assault. I don't think anyone associated with either movie had any malice in their intent in telling those stories, but they are absolutely of their time when you consider them now. You could never make “Revenge Of The Nerds” that same way. For one thing, the nerds won, and the world of that movie no longer exists, but you'd have to be way more careful about how you wrote the revenge that they take.
I know this is going to sound like sacrilege to many of you '80s kids, but I thought “The Neverending Story” was a totally whiff. I liked the book, which I had read during that two weeks I was at Boy Scout camp, and I was looking forward to the movie. I thought it was plodding and ugly and entirely without a sense of wonder, and I didn't get the adaptation choices at all. I honestly didn't give the film another thought after I saw it, though, because the end of July saw the release of a movie that became a full-blown obsession for a while, Prince's “Purple Rain.” Sure, I know he didn't direct it, but it's his movie completely, and it was the one R-rated film that summer that my parents went out of their way to completely forbid me to see. Of course, that meant I ran out and saw it immediately, but that would have happened anyway. The music was omnipresent on MTV, and Prince represented everything that scared the shit out of my parents and the older generation in general. One of the reasons I enjoyed going back to see it was because of how many of my friends had older sisters who were willing to go with us, and who seemed to understand what Prince was singing about. At 14, I liked to think I understood, but I suspected that Prince had secret knowledge. “Darling Nikki” was about the cutting edge of blisteringly dirty in the mainstream in 1984, and the film as a whole was just such an amazing blast of rude, horny, rock'n'roll energy that it was little wonder we went and saw it repeatedly, like a concert.
August was spent in part at my grandmother's house, and in part at home in Chattanooga, and I tried to see everything that came out. “The Philadelphia Experiment” was a charming-but-shaggy little genre kick, and I had a crippling crush on Nancy Allen in general at that point. Come to think of it, I might still have a crippling crush on Nancy Allen. Let's put a pin in that. I thought “Cloak and Dagger” was a complete dud, with an oddly miscast Dabney Coleman. I remember seeing “Grandview USA” based entirely on the idea that we might get to see Jamie Lee Curtis naked again, only to get a gooey romance with Patrick Swayze, C. Thomas Howell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and both John and Joan Cusack, who were also in “Sixteen Candles” at the start of the summer.
When August 10th rolled around, it really drove home just how much had happened since the start of the summer. Thanks to “Temple Of Doom” and “Gremlins” and the op-ed firestorm that erupted in places like “Time” magazine. Spielberg was the one who suggested that the MPAA should create a rating to go between PG and R, since that seemed to be the commercial sweet spot where filmmakers were trying to work. August 10th was the release of “Red Dawn,” which was granted the new rating, and which created a different kind of furor about the film's politics and depiction of an invading Russian force. It seems sort of batshit now to think how many movies we made where we treated the Russians like James Bond villains. It's amazing. The Cold War may not have ever erupted into actual back-and-forth destruction, but we certainly took a lot of cheap shots via our entertainment.
I was far more interested in the other film that came out that weekend. I spent a good deal of that summer doing some volunteer work at a local PBS television station, and there was a guy who worked in the editing department who was about 22 or 23 years old, a huge science-fiction and fantasy fan. He had an apartment where every single room was lined with bookshelves, every one of them full. He was the first person to introduce me to the world of science-fiction conventions, and he was the one who told me a month before it opened that “The Adventures Of Buckaroo Banzai” was going to be amazing. He had the novelization for it, but he told me it wasn't like any other novelization that he'd ever read. He said it was crazy, and he convinced me to go out and buy one for myself. He was right. It was completely nuts, and inventive and exciting and hilarious and deeply at peace with being totally weird. There was a confidence to the way they presented this totally bananas movie. I saw “Buckaroo” on opening weekend, and I was on vacation at the time. Nobody I saw it with liked it, and a few people were actively irritated that I had wasted their time. I loved it, though, and I felt like it was the sort of thing worth drawing battle lines over. If you didn't like “Buckaroo Banzai,” you were deeply suspect in my book.
If anyone could have listened to my interior monologue while I was watching “Sheena” or “The Woman In Red,” two of the films rounding out the final few weeks of the summer's release schedule, I probably would have been arrested. I was fourteen, keep in mind. Seeing Kelly Le Brock naked in a Gene Wilder comedy was a big deal, and Tanya Roberts made a modified Tarzan outfit into something that made me squirm the entire time she was onscreen. My dad took me to see “Tightrope,” the Clint Eastwood cop movie, and at the time, I remember thinking that the film was beyond the pale, more R-rated than most R-rated fare, full of genuinely upsetting sexuality. I watched it again recently for the first time in decades, and I still think it is an amazingly sleazy movie in a way that only '80s films can really manage.
That last movie I remember flipping out for that summer was the other PG-13 release, “Dreamscape,” and I really liked the way the film played with reality and fantasy. I also thought Dennis Quaid was a pretty cool lead, while Kate Capshaw played a character radically different from Willie Scott. I look back at that entire summer's line-up now, and I am impressed by how much variety there was and how many of those films are at least pretty darn good, or even great. It was one of the summers I spent in that weird middle zone between being a kid and being an adult, straining to try to be a teenager, but not really free yet to run wild.
The films that have endured from that summer are very good, and I think there were a few that really got away from the mainstream. Overall, while 1984 wasn't quite the defining thunderclap that 1982 had been, it felt very much like summers were being programmed for me, and I am amazed how vivid my memories of where and how I saw those films still is, a full 30 years later.