I was tempted to start with Red Dawn here, because when you’re talking batshit crazy movies it should be at the top of the list. But I’m going to follow my heart and go with The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai: Across the 8th Dimension, one of the most absurdly marvelous things the 80s ever produced. It jump-starts its own comic-book universe and presents it to us the way most of us discovered comics back when there weren’t any movies not starring Christopher Reeve to give you a cheat sheet. You’d pick up issue #48 of whatever the line was, and had to figure out the characters and story thread midway through. It was baffling, fascinating and kind of wonderful… the same vibe that Buckaroo Banzai picks up without pause and carries to the finish line. It opened today in 1984, and there will always be a little joy in my heart because of it.
Yes, yes we’re getting to Red Dawn. Not the instantly forgotten reboot from a few years ago, but the gloriously deranged original, in which the dirty commies invade America’s heartland, forcing a gaggle of corn-fed teens to go all insurgent on their Lenin-quoting butts. The scenario requires a little hand-waving to fly, but director John Milius does find an interesting way of revealing how Americans might mount a guerilla war against a hypothetical invader, and the pervading sense of doom that creeps into the narrative sets it apart from other bits of flag-waving jingoism from the era. Red Dawn also opened today in 1984.
We’ll close with something completely different: The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, a sweet, snarky and completely fabulous dramedy about a trio of drag queens (Terence Stamp, Hugo Weaving and Guy Pearce) on a journey across the Outback. Its pleasures are many, but I enjoy showing it to people just to watch them freak out at Agent Smith dressed up like a showgirl. It opened in the United States today in 1994.
People were still trying to figure out Tim Burton in the winter of 1990. Having watched him direct an unexpected hit with Beetlejuice and then taken the world by storm with Batman, everyone wondered whether he was for real or just some quirky hiccup. He responded with Edward Scissorhands, a modern fairy tale that cemented his distinctive style, evinced a gentle shift away from the darkness of the Caped Crusader, and — oh yeah — made a giant pile of money. The director was here to stay and “Burtonesque” was officially a word. Edward Scissorhands opened today in 1990.
We also have a pair of less-than-brilliant-but-still-somewhat-notable science fiction movies that opened today. The first was Star Trek: The Motion Picture, hoping to capitalize on all that Star Wars moola by throwing the crew of the Enterprise against a baffling array of enormous concept art. Seriously, it took them 40 minutes to get out of space dock. Galaxy’s not gonna save itself guys! Get the lead out! (They did a little better with their second effort.) It hit theaters today in 1979.
Exactly 5 years later, Peter Hyams’ 2010 hit theaters. On its own, it’s actually a decent piece of sci-fi. There’s just the matter of the film it’s following up… the little one that Stanley Kubrick did. It’s not a bad bit of escapism, but watching it really makes you wish you were watching the first film instead. It opened today in 1984.
There are times when you want to revel in the artistry of cinema as an art form, when the possibilities of the medium greet you in an overwhelming rush, when the combination of a brilliant director, a perfect script and a talented team of hard-working artists creates a masterpiece for the ages. Then there’s times when you just want George Carlin to help you pass your history test with a time-travelling phone booth. Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure opened today in 1989.
If 80s icons are your thing, there’s also Footloose, the tale of Kevin Bacon and a bunch of feelgood teens sticking it to John Lithgow’s stuffy preacher who wants to outlaw dancing. DANCING. It opened today in 1984.
Director William Castle didn’t quite have the brutal efficiency of Roger Corman or the strangely beautiful incompetence of Ed Wood. What he did have was gimmicks — tons and tons of gimmicks — designed to get boomer kids into the theater just to watch skeletons come at them on strings or nurses take their blood pressure in the lobby to ensure that they were physically fit enough to endure whatever schlock was waiting for them on screen. One of his better efforts, the original House on Haunted Hill, first hit screens today in 1959.