In my final article taking a look back at summer movies of the past I now come to 1985. In this year movie palaces were all but dead save for one or two scattered about each city. Drive-ins were slowly declining and losing screens but the suburban mall theaters were increasing in sizes to as many as ten screens. The multi-plex was officially born around this time.
In 1985 the mad slasher film had virtually died out with only a few sequels popping up. Horror and thrillers remained popular but the new hit genre was the teen comedy. Teen comedies had taken over the market and were so popular that PG, PG-13 and R rated comedies were becoming popular and even the promise of nudity-less films weren’t enough to turn the teens away. You will note the number of them in the line-up below.
Both kids and adults were given plenty of product to choose from that summer with 43 movies released over the 12-week period. Six of these films would be remembered at Academy Award time and two of them would show up in the Best Picture category – an odd occurrence indeed. The summer also produced the top two grossing films of the year.
Here are the summer movie releases of 1985. I imagine most of you out there were around and old enough to have enjoyed a few on the big screen. I hope this brings back some fond memories. As always if you haven’t seen some of the films and I write positive things I hope you will seek those films out and enjoy them as I did. And if you enjoyed these articles I will be back later this year to cover the same years’ Christmas releases.
BACK TO THE FUTURE (Universal; Director – Robert Zemeckis) The summer’s biggest hit, and highest grossing film of 1985, was this delightful comedy adventure starring Michael J. Fox who, with the aid of an off kilter scientist (Christopher Lloyd), travels back in time to the 1950’s to help bring together his mismatched parents or he will cease to exist. This is a thoroughly entertaining film filled with laughs and excitement all directed at a solid pace by Zemeckis. The film received rave reviews and would gross almost $130 million at the box office. The film would receive 5 Academy Award nominations losing for Sound, Song and Best Original Screenplay while winning two awards for Editing and Special Effects.
THE BLACK CAULDRON (Walt Disney; Directors – Ted Berman and Richard Rich) This was Disney’s first animated film in four years and was an ambitious and very expensive sword and sorcery tale about a young boy in search of the title cauldron before it lands in the wrong hands. This PG rated film sported terrific animation and effects but was a bit too frightening for the young ones, which turned off most adults. The film earned positive reviews but was a box office disappointment earning only $12 million back from its $44 million budget.
BREWSTER’S MILLIONS (Universal; Director – Walter Hill) An usual film from action director Hill (The Warriors, 48 HRS) is this updated telling of the oft film story about a man who will inherit $300 million if he can spend $30 million in 30 days. Of course there are rules and provisions to the situation so it isn’t as easy as it sounds. Richard Pryor stars as Brewster, a minor league baseball pitcher with John Candy as his catcher. The film is awfully stale and has an unimaginative script and you know you are in trouble when you have Pryor and Candy and the film seems lifeless. The films received negative reviews and while it did go on to earn $20 million; the film’s budget was also $20 million.
THE BRIDE (Columbia; Director – Franc Roddam) An odd but sometimes rewarding re-telling of Bride of Frankenstein tells two stories: One is of the mad doctor (Sting) trying to create a mate for his monster and the much more satisfying story of a dwarf who befriends the monster at a carnival and forms an unusual friendship. The latter story is beautifully told and makes the film worth seeing while Sting’s scenes (with Jennifer Beals as the bride) are more troublesome. An interesting failure that received mixed reviews but flopped at the box office making only $3.6 million.
COCOON (20th Century Fox; Director – Ron Howard) One of the box office sleepers of the summer was this sci-fi drama about a group of aliens on Earth who have come to pick up some cocoons that contain life forms that are being re-energized by a swimming pool in the house they are renting. Next door is a retirement home where some of the men soon find the pool and discover it works as a fountain of youth for them. This thought provoking drama has an impressive cast including Steve Guttenberg, Brian Dennehy, Wilford Brimley, Don Ameche, Hume Cronyn, Jack Gilford, Jessica Tandy, Maureen Stapleton and Gwen Verdon. The film received positive reviews but was a smashing hit earning over $40 million and would win the 2 Academy Awards it was nominated for: Best Special Effects and Best Supporting Actor (Ameche).
D.A.R.Y.L (Paramount; Director – Simon Wincer) Sort of a precursor to A.I. tells this story of a childless couple that adopts a boy that turns out to be a robot. It’s a cute idea but the script takes it nowhere fast and it soon becomes pretty mundane. Younger kids seemed to enjoy it most, which is no surprise since its humor was aimed at those of that level. Critical reaction was weak and the film flopped making just $7.8 million at the box office.
DAY OF THE DEAD (United Film Distribution Corp; Director – George A. Romero) Romero’s second sequel to his classic Night of the Living Dead and the even better Dawn of the Dead is the weakest in the group telling the story of a group of scientists trapped in an underground bunker by the zombies and the attempts of one woman scientist’s attempt to study the creatures. Interesting premise is saddled by sheer boredom for the first hour but the film does come alive towards the end with plenty of action and blood and guts. The film lacks the shocks of the first two films and the humor of Dawn and was a major disappointment. Critics were not kind and the film flopped making only $5.8 million.
THE EMERALD FOREST (Embassy Pictures; Director – John Boorman) Deliverance director Boorman helms this adventure film starring Powers Boothe as an engineer working in the Amazon when his young son is kidnapped and brainwashed by a local tribe. The father then spends the next decade trying to track his son down and bring him home. This is a well-done drama that is a little lean on the adventure causing the film to lag at what should be key moments but ultimately turns into a decent film when all is said and done. Critical reaction was mixed but the film was a solid hit making over $24 million.
EXPLORERS (Paramount; Director – Joe Dante) This teenage sci-fi adventure is best known for its early performances from Ethan Hawke and River Phoenix and tells the story of a teenage sci-fi buff who gets his wish to travel in space with the aid of another teenage friend who is a genius and builds an operable spacecraft. The film starts out well but the second half takes some very bad turns and degenerates into a silly and unbelievable film. Critical reaction was poor and the film failed to catch on making only $9 million.
FLETCH(Universal; Director – Michael Ritchie) Chevy Chase starred as newspaper reporter Irwin Fletcher in this comedy mystery with Chase working undercover to try and expose a drug ring on a California beach. At the same time he is hired by a dying millionaire (Tim Matheson) to kill him so his family can have the insurance money. The film is filled with many clever sight gags (courtesy of Chase’s many different disguises) but also provides an interesting and intriguing if not altogether believable script. Critical reaction was mixed but it made a solid $25 million.
FRIGHT NIGHT (Columbia; Director – Tom Holland) A modern day vampire thriller about a vampire who moves in next door to a too inquisitive teenager and his mother. Soon the teenager finds out the truth but finds it hard to get anyone to believe him until he enlists the aid of a once famous horror actor now reduced to hosting a local horror movie show. This is a well done and sometimes chilling horror film with a climax not unlike Jaws where the heroes go to hunt down the vampire. The film is filled with chills and a nice sense of humor about itself with good performances from Chris Sarandon as the vampire and Roddy McDowall as the washed up actor who becomes real life vampire hunter. Reviews of the film were mixed and it earned a respectable $17 million at the box office but would find new life on video and would spawn a fairly decent sequel.
THE GOONIES (Warner Bros; Director – Richard Donner) Steven Spielberg produced this children’s adventure film about a group of kids searching for a lost treasure in the hopes of saving all their homes from being taken over by the bank. Hot on their tale is a family of criminals searching for the treasure as well. Critical reaction was mixed but the film made a solid $30 million at the box office and is today a huge cult classic.
THE HEAVENLY KID (Orion; Director – Cary Medoway) A ridiculously bad teen comedy about a 60’s hot rodder who is killed in a car race but cannot go to Heaven until he helps an 80’s nerd. There is nothing more to this dumb film except for predictable gags and a dumb script. Needless to say critics and audiences alike dismissed it as it only made $3 million and has been rightfully forgotten.
KISS OF THE SPIDERWOMAN (Island Alive; Director – Hector Babenco) This was an odd summer movie release that went straight to art houses and became a large word of mouth hit. The film tells the story of a gay man and a political activist jailed in a South American prison trying to get along with one another. The gay man’s sole expression of life is his memories of classic, cheesy Hollywood movies. William Hurt and Raul Julia are outstanding the lead roles in a film that moves slowly but becomes more engrossing as it goes. Critics raved and the film earned an impressive $13 million and would be nominated for four Academy Awards, winning for Best Actor (Hurt) and losing for Best Picture, Director and Screenplay.
THE LEGEND OF BILLIE JEAN (Tri-Star; Director – Matthew Robbins) To me this was an underappreciated drama starring Helen Slater and Christian Slater as sister and brother who are wrongfully accused of a shooting and have to go on the lam where they soon find themselves folk hero legends in Texas while the police hunt them down. Not the most realistic film but it offers good performances and some exciting scenes as Billie Jean soon starts to take her fame a little too seriously. Critical reaction was poor and the film was a flop earning only $3.1 million.
LIFEFORCE (Cannon; Director – Tobe Hooper) An odd sci-fi thriller from the director of the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre about a space mission gone wrong and the sexy, vampire-like zombie that is brought back to Earth and begins turning victims into zombies. This strange film is all over the map and makes little sense but has a certain charm about it despite the violence and nudity that can help one’s enjoyment as long as one doesn’t think about it too long. One positive? The terrific score by Henry Mancini. Critics dismissed the film and it earned only $6.6 million at the box office with a budget of $26 million, making it a huge loser.
MAD MAX BEYOND THUNDERDOME (Warner Bros; Director – George Miller) The third in the action series starring Mel Gibson is its weakest but is still enjoyable and tells the story of Max coming to a cutthroat city (run by pop singer Tina Turner) and is put into a battle to the death against a warrior. After surviving that he is exiled to the desert where he comes across a band of children and tries to survive those out to kill him while protecting the children. The film is exceptionally well directed and action packed but goes on too long and cannot hold the frantic pace of the last, and best, film, The Road Warrior. Despite mixed reviews the film made almost $20 million at the box office and would be nominated for two Academy Awards for Sound and Score, but failed to win either.
THE MAN WITH ONE RED SHOE (20th Century Fox; Director – Stan Dragoti) Tom Hanks stars in this comedy adventure as an everyman who finds himself mistakenly targeted by CIA agents for assassination. The film should take off from there but seems to lie there in situations not realistic but simply the conceit of the screenwriters. Hanks is wasted in the film, as he is not allowed one single moment to shine in what should have been a knockout comedy. Critics crucified the film and it was a huge box office flop barely making $4 million.
MY SCIENCE PROJECT (Touchstone; Director – Jonathan R. Betuel) One of the biggest flops of the year was this juvenile comedy about a group of students that unearth a device that cause time and space warps. The film is often bland and more often tasteless without a single moment of wit. Critics blasted the film and it barely earned $2 million.
NATIONAL LAMPOON’S EUROPEAN VACATION (Warner Bros; Director – Amy Heckerling) The second adventure for the Griswald family is this mild but sometimes very amusing film as the family wins a European vacation where they set off and cause havoc around the world. Not as good as the first film, this sequel still offers some solid laughs but only sporadically. The film received mostly negative reviews but Chevy Chase’s popularity helped carry the film to an impressive $25.6 million gross.
ORDEAL BY INNOCENCE (Cannon; Director – Desmond Davis) Yet another adaptation of an Agatha Christie mystery is far and away the weakest with Donald Sutherland as a detective from America who happens to fall into a murder mystery in 1950’s England. Christopher Plummer, Faye Dunaway and Sarah Miles co-star in a mystery that is contrived and filled with plot holes leading to a solution that cannot be accurately figured out without knowing certain conceits from the filmmakers. For a mystery nothing is more deadly because once the audience figures out they can’t guess the killer’s identity fairly there is no reason to care. That is exactly what happened as critics dismissed the film and it was a flop at the box office.
PALE RIDER (Warner Bros.; Director – Clint Eastwo d) Clint Eastwood’s first Western since 1976’s The Outlaw Josey Wales is this tale of a stranger o who comes to a small town and soon finds himself aiding some struggling miners against some greedy lawmen. Typical Eastwood fare offers few surprises but has the strength of its leading man despite some long, slow stretches. Critical reaction was mixed but with a $7 million budget the film was a solid hit earning $21 million.
PEE WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE (Warner Bros; Director – Tim Burton) Burton’s big screen directorial debut stars Paul Reubens as his child-like alter ego Pee Wee and the simple story of Pee Wee’s bike being stolen and his cross country odyssey to find it culminating in a fun chase through a movie studio. Pee Wee’s popularity from nightclubs and television appearances on David Letterman helped propel this film into a sleeper hit making over $18 million despite poor reviews.
PERFECT (Columbia; Director – James Bridges) A notorious box office flop at the time was this “inside” look at the world of health clubs starring John Travolta as a reporter from Rolling Stone out to expose the seedy side of things while becoming attracted to an aerobics instructor (Jamie Lee Curtis) who he is planning to trash in the article. The film also gets bogged down in a subplot with Travolta refusing to reveal his source in a mobster article he has written. Not nearly as bad as you may have heard the film still doesn’t come together but has its moments. Critics trashed the film and while it grossed $13 million it carried a $19 million budget.
PRIZZI’S HONOR (ABC Pictures; Director – John Huston) An extraordinary black comedy about a slow witted hit man (Jack Nicholson) from a Mafia family who finds himself in way over his head when he falls in love with a hit woman from another mob family (Kathleen Turner). Director Huston weaves a multitude of colorful characters throughout the film as the family tries to keep its respect along with its collective head above water. This was a great director’s last great film that earned glowing reviews from critics and grossed over $18 million at the box office. The film would be nominated for 8 Academy Awards including Best Picture, Director, Actor (Nicholson), Supporting Actor (William Hickey), Adapted Screenplay, Editing and Costume Design. It’s lone award was for Anjelica Huston for Best Supporting Actress.
RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II (Tri-Star; Director – George P. Cosmatos) This hugely successful sequel to Sylvester Stallone’s 1982 hit finds John Rambo in a prison quarry who is pardoned so he can go to Cambodia in search of MIA’s in Vietnam. Naturally Rambo (Stallone) discovers he has been tricked and that the real bad guys are back home running the operation. Richard Crenna also reprises his role from the original film with Charles Napier as the new villain. This action packed sequel is silly but nonetheless enjoyable as long as you don’t think too hard about it. In other words this was perfect summer movie fare. Critics were mixed but the film was a smash hit grossing almost $79 million and coming in as the second highest grossing film of the year.
REAL GENIUS (Tri-Star; Director – Martha Coolidge) For me this was the funniest film of the summer and told the story of a nerdy genius who comes to a college of geniuses to join a group working for a whiz professor and soon finds out the group is being used for devious means. Val Kilmer steals the show as the reigning whiz kid who would rather party than work. And let’s not forget about the mysterious guy who lives in the closet! This is a very funny film with layers to its intelligent script but apparently teens were looking for more simple-minded fare as it only grossed $6.7 million despite mostly positive reviews.
RED SONJA (MGM/UA; Director – Richard Fleischer) Sort of a female Conan features Brigitte Nielsen in the title role in this sword and sorcery adventure with our title character battling villains from start to finish. The film’s photography is its star because Nielsen, and most of the rest of the cast, gives a terrible performance. Critics devoured this piece of junk and the film flopped barely making $7 million.
RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD (Orion; Director – Dan O’Bannon) A precursor to Shaun of the Dead is this comedic horror film about a gas that is accidentally emitted into the air and, when it rains, causes the dead to come to life keeping a group of survivors trapped at a mortuary next door to the graveyard. This is a violent but very funny horror film that was underappreciated at the time but has since found cult status. Reviews were mixed and while it only made $8 million, it’s low budget was just $4 million.
RETURN TO OZ (Buena Vista; Director – Walter Murch) An ill conceived and terribly downbeat sequel to the 1939 classic finds Dorothy in a sanitarium who then escapes and returns to her land of Oz only to discover the place is now being run by evil rulers. What’s worse is that the colorful characters Dorothy runs into this team are frightening and mostly forgettable. The film is supposed to be for kids but there is no joy or excitement in the film and it is too darn frightening which is quite frustrating. As expected the film received tepid reviews and was a bomb at the box office making only $6.6 million back from its $25 million budget. The film did secure an Academy Award nomination for its effects but was not victorious.
RUSTLER’S RHAPSODY(Paramount; Director – Hugh Wilson) The director of the enormously popular Police Academy followed up that huge hit with a spoof of Western films of the 40’s, particularly the classic Saturday matinee movie serials. Tom Berenger plays the town sheriff dealing with bad guy Andy Griffith with Marilu Henner as the heroine. Often compared (at that time) to Mel Brooks’ classic Blazing Saddles, this film is only sporadically funny as it takes its time aiming at obvious targets and often missing them anyway. The film was poorly received by critics and flopped at the box office making only $6 million.
SECRET ADMIRER (Orion; Director – David Greenwalt) Another teen comedy that revolves around the identity of the composer of a love letter that causes problems for both teenagers and, refreshingly, their parents. Some interesting moments can’t survive an uninspired script that leads down mostly predictable paths. Critical reaction was poor and the film was a huge flop making just $4.3 million.
SESAME STREET PRESENTS FOLLOW THAT BIRD (Warner Bros.; Director – Ken Kwapis) Cute film for the younger set follows Big Bird as he is placed in a foster home and then his adventures as he gets out and tries to find his way back to Sesame Street. This is a sweet little film all kids can enjoy filled with wall to wall (and mostly memorable) songs. Reviews were generally positive and the film earned $17 million at the box office.
SILVERADO (Columbia; Director – Lawrence Kasdan) The second, and far better, Western of the summer was this adventure about four unlikely men who come together to help defend a helpless town from some very bad guys who have incorporated themselves in that very town. The film is long and filled with several sub-plots and is carried by terrific acting and a solid script. The large, talent-laden cast includes Kevin Kline, Danny Glover, Scott Glenn, Kevin Costner, Brian Dennehy, John Cleese and Jeff Goldblum. Critical reaction was mixed but the film was a disappointment at the box office as it grossed $16 million from a $27 million budget.
ST. ELMO’S FIRE (Columbia; Director – Joel Schumacher) Sort of a college age Breakfast Club tells the tale of several people just coming out of college and struggling with personal and professional decisions as they head into true adulthood. The film is heavy handed at times and awfully silly but its biggest problem is that most, if not all, of the main characters are totally unlikable. The talented cast includes Judd Nelson, Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez (whose story of finding a longtime woman he had a crush on is the best thing in the movie), Ally Sheedy, Demi Moore and Mare Winningham. The film was a critical flop but the young adult audience took to it and made it a hit earning over $20 million.
THE STUFF (New World; Director – Larry Cohen) B movie director Cohen (It’s Alive; Q) unleashes his latest piece of fluff about a new desert on the market that is taking the country by storm but it is soon discovered the tasty dish is turning consumers into zombies. The mixture of comedy and horror sometimes makes the film work enough that it isn’t as terrible as you might expect. Still the reviews were poor and it flopped at the box office.
SUMMER RENTAL (Paramount; Director – Carl Reiner) John Candy, appearing in his second film of the summer, stars as a burnt out air traffic controller who takes his family on a vacation to Florida and has to deal with a group of spoiled vacationers determined to ruin the Candy family vacation. The film has a few laughs and Candy is very endearing in his first true starring role but the film’s script problems are evident and Reiner’s direction is unusually bumpy. The film received poor reviews but still managed to eek out a gross of $12.3 million.
TEEN WOLF (Atlantic Releasing Corp; Director – Rod Daniel) A nerdy high school kid soon discovers that he comes from a family of werewolves and that soon makes him popular on the basketball team and in the high school. This film was rushed into a late summer release to capitalize on the popularity of its star, Michael J. Fox, whose other summer release, Back to the Future, was breaking box office records. It turned out to be a smart move as this dumb little comedy earned almost $17 million at the box office despite bad reviews.
A VIEW TO A KILL (MGM/UA; Director – John Glen) Roger Moore’s final go around as 007 is also his (and possibly the series’) worst. Looking far too old, Moore’s Bond battles an evil land baron who wants to destroy the Silicon Valley in California. The film is mired in silly stunts, not very attractive Bond girls, a weak villain (Christopher Walken) and an even weaker script. Critics ripped the film apart and while it made $25.4 million, its budget was $30 million.
VOLUNTEERS (Tri-Star; Director – Nicholas Meyer) Tom Hanks’ second film (and flop) from that summer re-teams him with his Splash co-star John Candy in this story of a spoiled playboy (Hanks) who accidentally finds himself in the Peace Corps and soon finds that things aren’t going to run his way as they do in the real world. This is a slip-shod mess with few laughs and Hanks badly overplaying his part. The film received bad reviews and only made $10 million.
WARNING SIGN (20th Century Fox; Director – Hal Barwood) A silly horror/thriller about what happens when a chemical spill in a lab leads to supposedly frightening consequences for the scientists doing research there. This was a small, forgettable film with no thrills and enough plot holes to drive a truck through. Reviewers were not kind and the film barely made $2 million at the box office.
WEIRD SCIENCE (Universal; Director – John Hughes) Director Hughes’s oddball and comedic take on the Frankenstein legend about two nerds who create the perfect woman so they can enjoy all the fantasies high schoolers believe only jocks have. The film’s premise is interesting but goes nowhere fast and Hughes even changes the rules in the back half of the film as the perfect woman becomes the boss to the boys. Bill Paxton, as the sadistic older brother of one of the nerds provides the film with its few truly funny moments but he isn’t on screen enough to save it. Critical reaction was mixed and the film underperformed making $12 million.
YEAR OF THE DRAGON (MGM; Director – Michael Cimino) This was one of the most eagerly awaited films of the year being it was director Cimino’s first film since his debacle Heaven’s Gate four years earlier. Oliver Stone wrote the script for this dramatic thriller starring Mickey Rourke as a San Francisco detective battling both his inner demons from Vietnam and a crime lord in Chinatown. The film has some powerful moments but almost drowns in story access in this overlong film that features terrific performances from Rourke and John Lone as the crime lord. The film received vastly mixed reviews but flopped at the box office making only $9.5 million back from its $24 million budget.