The first few days of July are traditionally set for big blockbusters hoping to cash in on the long holiday weekend. Blockbusters rarely stand the test of time, of course, but there are always exceptions. The biggest for this day is Back to the Future, Robert Zemeckis’s iconic time-travel movie that has since become a classic of 80s popcorn cinema. It’s a tad too tightly plotted for comfort, and Thomas F. Wilson’s admirably odious villain eventually becomes a real monster in a script that calls for a garden-variety creep. But the buddy-buddy chemistry between stars Michael J. Fox and Christpher Lloyd is infectious, and that tricked-out DeLorean always elicits a smile no matter how close it gets to 88 MPH. Back to the Future opened today in 1985.
Two other minor relics of 80s cinema opened today a couple of years later. The better of the two is Innerspace, Joe Dante’s glorious romp in which a hotshot pilot (Dennis Quaid) gets shrunk to microscopic size and accidentally injected into the rump of a neurotic supermarket manager (Martin Short). Shrinky-dink movies aren’t exactly legion, but this one surely ranks as the best. (Yes, including Fantastic Voyage.)
The other one is Adventures in Babysitting, an early effort from Chris Columbus that sends Elizabeth Shue’s put-upon high school senior through the mean streets of Chicago with a couple of pint-sized charges. It’s definitely boilerplate, but has a fun teenybopper energy to it (Shue makes a great straight man). It’s also notable for its evocation of Marvel’s Thor long before anyone outside of comic book circles knew who he was… with a little help from future MCU alum Vincent D’Onofrio to boot.
Both Innerspace and Adventures in Babysitting opened today in 1987.
We’ve been getting our 80s on recently, and today is a red letter date for that. We’ll start with the earliest: Trading Places, John Landis’s Wall Street retake on The Prince and the Pauper, remains a doggedly entertaining comedy provided you can accept that its heroes emerge triumphant via insider trading. Buoyed by Dan Aykroyd’s fantastic blue-blood buffoon and Eddie Murphy just hitting his stride as a fast-talking con man, it rides their chemistry all the way to the bank. It doesn’t hurt to have greats like Don Ameche, Ralph Bellamy and Denholm Elliott strutting this stuff, or Jamie Lee Curtis definitively breaking out of her scream queen typecasting as a deliciously self-assured leading lady. Trading Places opened 35 years ago today in 1983.
Just one year later, the #1 and #3 movie at the box office both opened on the same day. We doubt that will ever happen again, but what’s doubly interesting is how well both of them held up. At the top of the list, of course is Ghostbusters, another Dan Aykroyd flick that has justly earned its place as a comedy classic. Beyond the way he provides an 80s update to the old fashioned monster comedies like Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, director Ivan Reitman actually touches on some reasonably scary conceits — almost Lovecraftian at times — and never sacrifices the core of the scenario for the sake of cheap laughs.
That same day, another film in a similar vein opened, slightly closer to the horror end of the scale than the comedy end, but touching some of the same emotions nonetheless. Joe Dante’s Gremlins not only found a dark heart beneath a façade of Normal Rockwell America, but let us buy into the sheer anachronistic glee of watching it all burn down. Its old-school effects hold up quite well, and it even managed a sequel that people think is pretty awesome too.
And here’s the catcher: a third movie opened that same day in 1984, and while it didn’t make nearly as much money as the other two, and it may never escape the shadow of its iconic predecessor Airplane!, Top Secret! may be the best film the trio of David Zucker, Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams ever produced. So before we sign off, ask yourself: how do we know he’s not Mel Torme?
1981 was a banner year for science fiction, fantasy and horror movies… perhaps more than 1982, which is usually cited as the high water mark for genre cinema. Two of that year’s bumper crop were released today. First up, Excalibur: John Boorman’s ambitious attempt to cover the entire Arthur legend from conception to death. Its reach exceeds its grasp more than once, but it succeeds in capturing the core of the legend in a way no other film before or since could quite manage. And egad, that armor…
Occupying equal status on the pop culture ladder is Joe Dante’s The Howling, part of a trio of notable werewolf movies that came out that year. While it can’t quite match An American Werewolf in London (which is duking it out with 1941’s The Wolfman for best ever), it makes a surprising game run at it, with Dante’s signature wit and iconoclasm punctuating a wild story about a colony of werewolves disguised as a nature retreat in Northern California. Watch for column favorite Robert Picardo — Dante’s perennial good-luck charm — as a grinning serial killer.