Retrospective: 30 Years Since we first entered ‘Wayne’s World’ By Jesse Striewski

Before Saturday Night Live became the embarrassing mess of mean-spirited, nasty nonsense that it unfortunately has, it actually gave us some great moments and memorable characters in TV history. In the ’70s the likes of the Coneheads stood out, while Eddie Murphy dominated the early part of the ’80s with multiple personas, including Gumby, Buckwheat, and Mr. Robinson.

But by the late ’80s, we were introduced to two guys who “rocked” out in a basement while filming a public access show, Wayne and Garth, potrayed wonderfully by castmates Mike Myers and Dana Carvey. The original Wayne’s World skit officially premired on February 18, 1989, ushering in a new era of pop culture phenomion. Shortly after, I began discovering many of the bands (Guns N’ Roses, Aerosmith, etc…) the duo would reference on their “show” on my own personal journey, so it made perfect sense for me to fall for these two lovable dimwits.

It didn’t take long for Producer Lorne Michaels and co. to cash in on their newfound hit skit, and by 1991, a film version for Paramount Pictures was green lit. Veteran rock director Penelope Spheeris, who at the time was best known for her Decline of Western Civilization films, was tapped to direct.

Released on February 14, 1992, Wayne’s World was an instant hit, eventually going on to gross over $180 million at the box office. Aside from Myers and Carvey, it also starred Tia Carre as Wayne’s sexy love interest, Cassandra, and ’80s brat packer Rob Lowe as sleazy television producer Benjamin, hell-bent on exploiting the show and stealing the girl all at once.

Wayne’s World was a one-of-a-kind ride like few others that came before it, with the two heroes stumbling upon a host of colorful characters along the way, with bit parts played by everyone from Meat Loaf, Ed O’Neill, Chris Farley, to even Alice Cooper himself (I couldn’t help but think of the film when I saw Cooper perform “Feed My Frankenstein” for the first time years later in 2005).

Aside from Cooper, it’s soundtrack also boosted many others who weren’t necessarily considered “in” by 1992’s standards, including Black Sabbath and Cinderella, as well as giving Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” it’s highest ever chart position sixteen years after it’s original release (shortly before his death that same year, late Queen frontman Freddie Mercury actually gave his blessing for the song to be used in the film, reportedly loving the head-banging car scene it was used in).

I myself was not able to see the film during its original run in the cinemas; just two months after it hit theaters, I was involved in a car accident that would ultimately change my life forever and leaving me permanently disabled. But during the many months I spent recovering in the hospital, I watched the film for the first time with a fellow long-term patient shortly after it came out on video.

However, I was finally able to catch Wayne and Garth on the big screen the following year when Wayne’s World 2 was released in December of 1993. Although lacking some of the charm of the original (and the direction of Spheeris, who Myers reportedly butted heads with during production of the first film), the sequel did have some of its own memorable moments, including some stand out performances from the likes of Christoper Walken, Kim Basinger, and Oliva d’Abo, among others.

Still, even with all of its flaws, I will gladly take Wayne’s World 2 over ninety-nine percent of what passes as “comedy” these days. When the Wayne’s World films were released, there was still a sort of innocence that’s just been lost today; so much of what comes out now is either hollow, or contains a level of ugliness fueled by some need to push an agenda and/or criticize in the name of “social justice.” Society is indeed headed down an unfortunate path, and should really take a cue from Wayne and Garth, and just be “excellent” to each other again.

Retrospective: 40 Years of John Carpenter’s Monstrous Masterpiece ‘The Thing’ By Shawn McKee

The makings of a good horror movie can be subjective. Within multiple horror subgenres exists a consensus of “greats ones” or influential classics that made an undeniable cultural impact. When trying to examine my own love of horror films, I’ve found excitement to be a prime motivating factor.

Danger, mystery, and suspense coupled with a dark, brooding atmosphere are perfect elements of any effective horror film. The creative ingenuity displayed in horror from the past hundred years is a remarkable testament to the human spirit. The sheer talent behind and in front of the camera throughout the twentieth century is overwhelming to consider. Today, we’re fortunate enough to witness horror from its infancy in the silent era to the movies of today.

Different things scare different people. Some people don’t like to be scared at all. I’m naturally drawn to the macabre, most likely due to the wealth of ‘80s horror films from my childhood. The 1980s were, after all, when horror was perfected. It’s a known fact. Of course, this wouldn’t have been possible without the springboard of the preceding decade’s “New Hollywood” movement that saw a new generation of filmmakers shifting control of studio system to a more independent, artistically driven one.

Before such notable times, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), and Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) singlehandedly changed the suspense/horror landscape, and studios took notice. The ‘70s gave us The Exorcist (1973), The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), Jaws (1975), and Halloween (1978), among others. These were serious films that made serious amounts of money, while leaving their mark as cultural milestones.

John Carpenter’s Halloween soon became the most successful independent film of its time. Carpenter followed with a string of hits that included The Fog (1980) and Escape from New York (1981). His next and most ambitious film would later stand as one of the greatest horror films ever made and a movie whose initial failure and unfair critical dismissal soured his career for years to come.

Carpenter was heavily influenced by the films of Howard Hawks, whose prolific, multi-genre career spanned decades. In 1951, Hawks produced a film adaptation of John W. Campbell’s 1938 science-fiction/horror novella Who Goes There? called, The Thing from Another World. This influence can be seen during scenes in Halloween, where black & white clips from the movie are shown on TV. Carpenter was initially reluctant to direct a new version of Campbell’s classic novella after being approached by Universal. But he soon realized the potential of updating the story for modern audiences and put his entire directorial forces behind it.

Much like the original story, John Carpenter’s The Thing takes place on an Antarctic outpost besieged by a shapeshifting alien monster unwisely unearthed from its frozen state by curious scientists. The alien has no known identify or feature. It simply consumes, absorbs, and replicates every living thing around it. Carpenter’s version focuses heavily on atmosphere, utilizing the isolated, secluded backdrop to its fullest. The ominous score by Ennio Morricone is also the first time Carpenter didn’t do the music himself, though he did contribute.

Kurt Russell leads a talented cast of twelve men as no-nonsense helicopter pilot R.J. MacReady, based on meteorologist McReady from the original novella. He’s joined by the great Keith David as Childs and Wilford Brimley as Blair, the chief surgeon. Fear and paranoia overtake the men as they soon realize that the alien has infiltrated their ranks. Anyone of them could be the Thing, and there’s no way of telling. The alien is relentless in its objectives. It also has the added advantage of fully existing within in a single drop of blood.

The Thing’s groundbreaking special effects were dismissed by critics at the time as nothing more than a grotesque spectacle. Carpenter had tapped Rob Bottin, a young, ambitious make-up effects artist known for his work in Joe Dante’s The Howling (1981). It’s said that Bottin spent an entire year creating the shape-shifting effects for The Thing. Such dedication shows, as the results remain some of the best and most horrific creations ever captured on film. Bottin would go on to work Robocop (1987) and Total Recall (1990), among other films before strangely disappearing from movies altogether.

After years of struggling with its initial failure, Carpenter has said that he considered The Thing his personal favorite of all his films. I agree, and I’m grateful that it has received the recognition it deserves. It’s a serious horror film. There’s little to no humor, the threat is real, and the nihilistic ending remains legendary. It’s also a work of art, created by a filmmaker in his prime. If you’re looking for a good horror movie, there’s no better place to start than this 1982 masterpiece.

Retrospective: 35 Years Since the Ultimate Heavy Metal Horror Film ‘Trick or Treat’ By Jesse Striewski

Loud heavy metal guitars shooting lightning. Backwards subliminal messaging. And humpty dumpty exploding from a second story rafter. These are just a few of the things one gets from 1986’s Trick or Treat, the ultimate outcast horror film, and quite possibly, the best of its kind.

Directed by Charles Martin Smith and originally released on October 24 of that same year, it followed teenage rebel Eddie “Ragman” Weinbauer (played by Marc Price of Family Ties fame), a high school metalhead fed up with his jock bullies (lead by Doug Savant). When his rock n’ roll idol Sammi Curr (played by the late Tony Fields) dies unexpectedly, his world is thrown through a loop.

But thanks to a local DJ named Nuke (played brilliantly by KISS bassist Gene Simmons in his best Wolfman Jack impression), he’s given the last known recording by Curr. Upon playing the record backwards, he soon finds he has the power to communicate with – and even bring back from the dead – Curr. At first Curr aids Ragman in standing up to his tormentors, only to regret it when things quickly become deadly.

Ragman is then tasked with stopping Curr’s destructive path, and sets out to do just that with the help of some friends; the nerdy best friend Roger (Glen Morgan), and the lovely young maiden he has a crush on, Leslie (Lisa Orgolini). This eventually leads to a huge showdown at the high school Halloween dance, and the ensuing carnage make for some of the film’s best moments.

Hands down the music is one of standouts of the entire film. Rock supergroup Fastway, which originally featured ex-Motorhead and UFO members ‘Fast’ Eddie Clarke and Pete Way, respectively (as well as future Flogging Molly frontman Dave King) provided the soundtrack that acts as Curr’s music, and composer Christopher Young adds an extra eerie layer with his score (special effects wizard Kevin Yagher also cameos at the high school dance as one of the band members). And aside from Simmons’ previously mentioned cameo, there’s even a brief appearance by the one and only Ozzy Osbourne as a televangelist. I’ve been lucky enough to personally see Simmons, Osbourne, and even King all perform in concert since the film’s release (see photo below).

I can vividly recall watching Trick or Treat for the first time at one of those middle or high school sleepovers where someone brought a VHS copy they rented at the local video store. Not too far off from the character of Ragman myself at the time, I was easily able to relate to the film’s material, and have been a lifelong fan ever since. So if you’re staying in this Halloween and looking for something festive to watch that perhaps you haven’t seen before, fire up the old VCR, and get ready to Trick or Treat!

Gene Simmons (who appeared in the film as “Nuke”) performing on stage with KISS in Tampa, FL on 7/28/12 (photo courtesy of author’s personal collection).

Retrospective: 35 Years Since we had a ‘Night of the Creeps’ By Jesse Striewski

Long before mixing horror/Sci Fi with comedy became a trend, we had films like The Return of the Living Dead, House, Killer Klowns From Outer Space, and, one the earliest examples of its kind, Night of the Creeps. All of these films were inventive in their own unique ways, and are worth not only remembering, but a fair bit of analyzing as well.

Originally released on August 22, 1986, and directed by Fred Dekker (who also co-wrote the previously mentioned House, and would go on to direct The Monster Squad a year later), Night of the Creeps paired a stellar cast that included newcomers Jason Lively (National Lampoon’s European Vacation) and Jill Whitlow (Weird Science) with veterans like Tom Atkins (Halloween III: Season of the Witch). And to add an extra homage of nostalgia to the proceedings, most of the characters were each given surnames of other classic horror movie staples. For example; there’s a Romero, a Cronenberg, a Carpenter, etc…

The plot is really nothing revolutionary; alien slugs from another planet inhibit the bodies of people and turn them into zombies. Our heroes of course have to fight off these monsters in a college campus setting, navigating everything from sorority parties, to killer poodles. It never takes itself too seriously, yet maintains an unmistakable level of artistic creativity throughout the whole time. And while it failed to find an audience at the box office, it has since become a cult classic (rightfully so).

I first came across the film late one sleepless night in either middle or high school, and instantly loved it. Although it’s been sometime now since I last viewed the film, I still love its campy, midnight movie appeal. And it was all the more thrilling to actually meet Detective Ray Cameron himself, actor Tom Atkins, earlier this month at Fantasm Orlando, who is just as amazing as one would think (see photo below).

There’s many reasons why the films of yesteryear are remembered with such fondness; not only was the quality of the work itself better overall, flimmakers at the time were not hell-bent on getting across some biased agendas/opinions of theirs in the material (kind of like that garbage remake of Candyman). As with Night of the Creeps, what you saw is simply what you got….just a good old-fashioned, fun gorefest. There was nothing wrong with it then, and there’s still nothing wrong with it now in my book.

Rewind It Magazine’s (left to right) Jacob, Jesse, and Brooke Striewski with actor Tom Atkins – who played Detective Ray Cameron in the film – at Fantasm Orlando on 10/3/21.

Retrospective: 30 Years Since we saw ‘Ernest Scared Stupid’ By Shawn McKee

For most of us who grew up with him, Jim Varney was Ernest P. Worrell. He embodied the goofy, oblivious, and patently good-natured everyman whose antics were ripe for a barrage of movies throughout the eighties and nineties. Ernest resonated predominantly with children during his heyday but was just as popular with adults taken with his abrasive harassing of unseen counterpart “Vern” in dozens of commercials leading up to his movie success. “KnowWhutImean, Vern?” was a catchphrase for the ages.

It was hard to imagine that Ernest was just one character of many from a versatile impressionist. Varney had a long, established career in stand-up comedy, television, and commercials long before his breakout character. He found fame as Ernest after staring in several commercials for the Nashville-based Carden and Cherry advertising agency. Executive vice president of the company, John R. Cherry III, helped conceive the character and would later direct the surprise hit Ernest Goes to Camp in 1987 and every Ernest film to follow. Disney’s Touchstone Pictures produced and distributed four theatrically released Ernest films, ending with the 1991 Halloween-themed extravaganza Ernest Scared Stupid.

Ernest’s latest adventure begins with a clever montage of black-and-white horror/science-fiction movies, effectively setting the tone. Our hero sneaks around the darkness, reacting to clips from Nosferatu (1922), White Zombie (1932), and several other chiller classics as the opening credits roll. We’re then given some elaborate backstory about a 19th century killer troll vanquished by the townspeople, with Ernest’s own ancestor among them. The captured troll places a curse on the Worrell village elder, promising that his lineage will grow dumber with each new generation. Fast forward to the present, we find Ernest working in sanitation, not far removed from his job as a janitor in earlier films. We also learn that he lives in the same 19th century town that had sealed the captured troll under an oak tree.

Through inadvertent stupidity, Ernest releases the troll, while innocently helping some kids who built a treehouse upon its tomb. Once released, the troll captures children by turning them into wooden dolls and feasting on their energy, which is creepy enough. There’s also a wild performance by Eartha Kitt, singer of the classic song “Santa Baby,” playing Francis “Old Lady” Hackmore, replete with dark, low angled shots throughout her lair. Bill Byrge, one half of the hilarious Chuck and Bobby duo, returns once more as the silent Bobby. His brother Chuck (Gail Sartain), who Bobby had been paired with since the Hey Vern, It’s Ernest! days, is absent this go-round, replaced in this entry by his “cousin,” Tom (John Cadenhead).

Scared Stupid stands out easily as the most bizarre Ernest outing, and as a Halloween movie, it works. The trolls soon multiply and attack the entire town, but not before a scene between Ernest and lead troll, Trantor, where Trantor beats the complete crap out of Ernest during a school Halloween party. Ernest took a lot of abuse in his movies, starting with the beatdown he received in Ernest Goes to Camp by a burly, sociopathic construction worker he had the misfortune of provoking.

On the set of Ernest Scared Stupid. L to R; Actors Bill Byrge, Eartha Kitt, John Cadenhead, and Jim Varney.

After his umpteenth savage beating, Ernest soon discovers that milk destroys the trolls. This scene, of course, follows a humorous segment of Ernest’s misreading of milk as “miak” in ancient scrolls and proudly displaying a jar of seasonal Bulgarian “miak” to a ward off the head troll. A dizzying, climatic spectacle preludes Ernest’s eventual defeat of the troll army as he saves the day and brings peace to the cursed town.

Perhaps the most eerie thing about the film is that all the children turned into wooden dolls by the trolls are presumed dead until the very end. Even Ernest’s beloved Rimshot (the feisty, lovable terrier seen both in this movie and Ernest Goes to Jail) falls prey to the ensuing troll rampage, only to be brought back to life in the end. And by the end, we’ve seen enough trolls and goo for a nice, long shower.

Scared Stupid rivaled the ambition of Ernest Goes to Jail, where Varney played multiple roles, including murderous convict and Ernest look-alike, Felix Nash. This latest Ernest movie would contain the most elaborate special effects and makeup of any of his previous films. It would also be the last of the Disney-back theatrically released films before Ernest went straight-to-video. Varney pumped out five additional Ernest films before tragically dying of lung cancer in 2000.

The Scared Stupid commercials back then ran nonstop, with Ernest taunting an evil troll, moments before backing over him in a pickup truck and saying, “How about a bumper sandwich, booger lips?” Were these movies dumb? Sure. Were they reviled by critics from the start? Absolutely. But something lost on any “serious moviegoer” back then was the sheer amount of fun Ernest films offered impressionable youths. It may have been just another holiday cash-grab, following Ernest Saves Christmas (1988), but it was also the closest we would get to seeing Ernest in a semi-horror film. In a time where culture is so seriously grim, we could all use a little Ernest P. Worrell to lighten the mood.

Retrospective: 40 Years Since we first Encountered ‘The Evil Dead’ By Jesse Striewski

If ever there were a “little horror film that could,” it’s Sam Raimi’s 1981 gorefest, The Evil Dead. It took years of sweat equity and hustling with investors/distributors, but after non-stop persistence, director/writer Raimi eventually saw his vision realized.

The Evil Dead began as a passion project in the truest sense; Raimi and producer Robert Tapert recruited friends Bruce Campbell and Ellen Sandweiss to star in his 1978 short film Within the Woods, which acted as a promo for potential investors. The gimmick slowly but surely worked, and the film finally saw a worldwide release on October 15, 1981.

The plot was as straight-to-the-point as it gets; five college-aged friends (lead by Campbell in his soon-to-be iconic role as Ash Williams) travel to a remote Tennessee cabin for some down time. There they discover the Necronomicon, or Book of the Dead, and quickly unleash a fury of demonic evil that consumes each and everyone of them one by one.

What ensues is an onslaught of stop-motion animation and practical effects so unseen up until that point that even horror master Stephen King himself became an early supporter of the film. Viewers are transported into a harrowing reality that never lets up until its eventual blood-soaked conclusion.

While only a modest hit at the time of its release, The Evil Dead would eventually spawn a franchise that continues until this day. Two direct sequels, Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn (1987) and Army of Darkness (1992) continued the storyline of Ash with Campbell as the face of the dead before a reboot/sequel simply titled Evil Dead revived the series in 2013. Since then, Campbell has since reclaimed his rightful throne with the more comedy-driven series Ash vs. Evil Dead from 2015-18 .

But no matter where the series goes from here, nothing will ever top the rush brought on from popping a copy of the original film in the VCR in a shroud of darkness and experiencing the sheer thrill of it all for the first time. Thankfully, I’ve managed to hold on to my personal copy on VHS since high school, and can still do just that at any given time.

Retrospective: 35 Years Since ‘ALF’ Crash-Landed into our Living Rooms By Jesse Striewski

It cannot be expressed enough how special being a kid in the mid to late 1980’s (and even early ’90s) truly was. With literally out-of-this-world cartoons, toy lines, and video games geared at children in the form of Star Wars, Masters of the Universe, and Transformers (among many others), it felt like nearly anything and everything was possible.

But it wasn’t just the Saturday morning cartoon shows that caught on to marketing to younger audiences as far as television was concerned; prime time shows such as Growing Pains, Charles in Charge, and Head of the Class, were aiming more and more focus towards its younger viewers. And when ALF first premiered on NBC on September 22, 1986, network executives clearly scored a hit that was “out of this world.”

I remember watching it in New Jersey with my entire family that very same night (back when something as simple as a TV show’s premiere still felt like an event – something that sadly seems light years away these days), and being completely invested in it. I instantly feel in love, and, like many of the previously-mentioned franchises, ALF merchandise soon became sought-after items in our household.

The plot was simple enough in it’s own E.T.-type way; Gordan Shumway (a.k.a. “ALF”) crash-lands into the garage of a suburban California family, the Tanners, after his home planet Melmac is destroyed. Rather than report this to any authorities, the Tanners decide to keep him hidden, and ALF becomes a reluctant house guest, much to the jargon of the parents, Willie (Max Wright), and Kate (Anne Schedeen). All this was the creation of Tom Patchett and Paul Fusco (who also voiced ALF, as well as performed head puppeteer duties). An animated series also landed on Saturday mornings the following year, and ran until 1989.

This still shot of actor Benji Gregory (who played Brian Tanner on the show) during the show’s opening credits, clearly shows a missed (or possibly just overlooked) light in the background.

Over the course of his four years on television, ALF managed to drive a Ferrari, make a music video (where he played all of the instruments, of course), blow up a kitchen, and get Willie detained by the FBI, all the while plotting to eat the family cat, Lucky (albeit never succeeding). This would go on until March 24, 1990 (my ninth birthday), when the series was unexpectedly given the axe and aired its last episode.

Dean Cameron, who had a recurring role as Lynn Tanner’s boyfriend Robert Sherwood in the show’s final season, painted a vivid behind the scenes picture of the show. (Cameron had corresponded with me several times via email; though a full interview never did transpire in time, he did send me a link to a piece he penned called “I Was on ALF” on his personal website.) “I received a sort of “rule sheet” with my script. The main one being, ‘Don’t refer to ALF as a puppet. ALF is ALF.’ Yep. When talking about ALF (a puppet), you don’t say, The Puppet, you say “ALF.” He also described a tense moment on set when Wright lost his cool and uttered one of the “greatest lines” he has ever heard, “PUT US ON STICKS!!! WE’RE THE PUPPETS! WE’RE THE PUPPETS!!!”

Actor Dean Cameron (with ALF cast member Andrea Elson) in a 1990 episode of the show.

But things did not end there entirely for ALF. In 1996, a TV movie, Project: ALF, helped wrap up the character’s journey a little better than it’s original anti-climatic finale (though none of the Tanner family appeared). Sadly, Max Wright passed away in 2019 at the age of 75. Michu Meszaros, who also portrayed the costumed ALF in the none-puppet scenes, also passed away in 2016. But thirty-five years later, we’re still here talking about the show they helped make so memorable, and propel us all into another orbit. Not too shabby, guys.

Retrospective: 20 Years Since Mark Wahlberg Became a ‘Rock Star’ By Jesse Striewski

Few fictional ‘rock’ flicks have ever perfectly captured the essence of sex, drugs, and rock and roll as well as 2001’s Rock Star. Tagged with the line “The story of the wanna be, who got to be,” its source inspiration was drawn from the real life fairy tale of Tim “Ripper” Owens, who landed the dream job as frontman for heavy metal legends Judas Priest after being discovered singing the band’s material in a cover band.

Directed by Stephen Herek, the film uses this idea to tell the story of Chris “Izzy” Cole (Mark Wahlberg), who goes from singer for a Steel Dragon cover act, to the real deal almost overnight. He instantly feels all of the highs and lows going from obscurity to the big leagues, with many of his personal relationships ultimately straining as a result, including his romance with girlfriend/manager Emily Poule (Jennifer Aniston).

Having previous experience as lead singer for Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch, Wahlberg pulls off playing Cole like a pro. He’s surrounded by more ‘real life’ musicians throughout the film, with guitarist Zakk Wylde (Ozzy Osbourne/Black Label Society), bassist Jeff Pilson (Dokken), and drummer Jason Bonham (Led Zeppelin) making up the rest of the lineup of the fictional Steel Dragon.

The author (left) with former Judas Priest singer Tim “Ripper” Owens in 2019. Owens inspired the plot of Rock Star.

Outside of Steel Dragon, there’s use of many other notable musicians in the film; Slaughter drummer Blas Elias, Alter Bridge frontman Myles Kennedy, and even one time L.A. Guns/future Steel Panther lead singer Ralph Saenz (a.k.a. Michael Star – see photo below) all pop up at one point or another. There’s even an homage of sorts to the 1984 classic This is Spinal Tap, when the band is seen photographed on the same rooftop featured in said film.

Aside from featuring many original songs by the likes of KISS, Motley Crue, and Def Leppard (among many others) throughout, it also contains a number of covers re-imagined as Steel Dragon originals, such as the Steelheart track “We All Die Young.” And while the other members of the fictional outfit perform on these songs, oddly, Wahlberg does not sing on them. Instead the vocal duties are handled by Steelheart vocalist Miljenko Matijevic, and one-time Journey singer Jeff Scott Soto.

Making under $20 million on a $50-plus million dollar budget, Rock Star fell short of making the impression filmmakers had hoped it would; this could likely be attributed to the fact it was released just days before the September 11 terrorist attacks. Still, the film has since maintained a life of its own among fans, and remains a go-to, rags-to-riches rock journey to this day.

Steel Panther performing live in 2013; vocalist Michael Star makes a brief appearance in the film (photo courtesy of the author’s personal collection).

Retrospective: 35 Years Since Rodney Dangerfield went ‘Back to School’ By Shawn McKee

It would make sense that after seeing Back to School in theaters thirty-five years ago, I would be re-visiting the movie today. It was one of my the earliest big-screen outings, where I can still hear Danny Elfman’s bombastic, dreamlike score reverberating through the aisles. I recognized similar musical queues from another movie my brother and I had seen the year prior called Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. In both cases, Danny Elfman was just starting what would become a long, illustrious career scoring films.

It was exciting to witness the rise of so many well-known artists back then. Their ascendancy attributed to the zeitgeist of popular culture, with one classic movie after another. In 1986, legendary comedian Rodney Dangerfield scored big with a film that became the pinnacle of his career.

As kids, we forget how enormous movie screens looked. The dimming lights and flashing images from an unseen projector provided a surreal disruption of our adolescent sensibilities. I recall my bewildered shock of seeing “Large Marge’s” jarring, eye-popping reveal in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure.The Claymation effects of her split-second transformation were courtesy of director Tim Burton, another rising star at the time.

I was equally enthralled with Rodney Dangerfield’s patented “Triple Lindy” dive, performed in succession from multiple diving boards and accompanied by Elfman’s music. My indiscriminating eyes saw no difference between Rodney and the obvious stunt double performing summersalts between closeups. To me, it was simple movie magic.

Rodney Dangerfield struggled for decades as a stand-up comedian. He worked odd jobs throughout the 1950’s to support his wife and family. His comedy act picked up steam in the 1970’s after what must have seemed a lifetime, and he soon became one of Johnny Carson’s favorite guests on the late-night circuit. Dangerfield’s working-class background was the perfect fit for Thornton Melon, self-made millionaire and owner of “Tall & Fat,” a plus-size clothing store.

In addition to multiple one-liners delivered by Dangerfield, Melon couldn’t have been closer to his own persona. The script’s four writers, Harold Ramis among them, decided somewhere along the line to make their main character rich, and it works to the movie’s advantage. Infinite wealth is an artifice effectively used with Batman and Mr. Burns, among others. We know these characters are capable of anything, but it takes good writing to make it interesting.

Thornton lives in the lap of luxury, heeding advice from his limo driver, bodyguard, and friend Lou (Burt Young). He soon discovers that his wife (Adrienne Barbeau) despises him and is fooling around. He promptly divorces her. With no one else to turn to, Thornton seeks out his college-aged son, Jason (Keith Gordon) and decides to enroll in college himself after learning about his son’s difficulties. Thornton means well but constantly irks and intrudes upon Jason’s goals. To Thornton, college is a means to an end. He didn’t need it to be successful, so why should his son? He buys his way onto campus and pays experts to do his homework, disregarding the point of higher education. This attitude pushes him further away from his son than he can understand.

Meanwhile, Jason develops a love interest in a girl named Valerie Demond (Terry Farrell) who happens to be seeing the lead diver on the diving team, Chas Osborne (William Zabka), the blond antagonist from The Karate Kid. Similarly, Thorton is smitten with his literature professor Dr. Diane Tuner (Sally Kellerman), who is seeing economics professor Dr. Phillip Barbay (Paxton Whithead). These parallels are subtly delivered in a movie that never slows down. Thorton and his son are two sides of the same coin. They’re equal protagonists, but Thorton ultimately steals the show by design.

Both Melons share moments of failing and subsequently redeem themselves by the third act. Thornton learns that money can’t buy everything, as his son learns to believe in himself, and Back to School is a movie that just works. I could compare it to a dozen other classics and equate its magic to no end. It was the movie Rodney Dangerfield had been working for his entire life. And to see him embrace the role of Thornton Melon and perform it so effortlessly is a pleasure to behold.

The movie’s enduring legacy also comes down to its casting. In addition to the actors mentioned, there’s Ned Beatty, Robert Downey Jr., Kurt Vonnegut (in a cameo appearance), and Danny Elfman himself, performing with his band Oingo Boingo at Thornton’s mega party. Sam Kinison, as the deranged Professor Terguson, undoubtedly delivers some of the movie’s most memorable comedic moments. He, like, Dangerfield, is at the top of his game. Kinison was one of the many comics Dangerfield promoted and featured on his early HBO standup specials. It would have been a dream to see them in more movies together.

The carefree academic environment portrayed in Back to School is obviously long dead. It’s not a movie that fits well with the times, but to that extent, nothing does. It remains a classic though in every sense, and that fills me with hope. I’ll never forget seeing it in theaters, fully taken with its wild-eyed protagonist and his incredibly entertaining journey.

Retrospective: Four Decades Since There was ‘An American Werewolf in London’ By Jesse Striewski

The 1980’s no doubt saw an unprecedented surge of werewolf films; the original Howling starring Dee Wallace spawned a franchise full of endless sequels, while Stephen King’s Silver Bullet was adapted in to a feature film starring Corey Haim in 1984. And who can forget when Michael J. Fox became a Teen Wolf in 1985 (and when Jason Bateman followed in his paw prints for its sequel just two years after that?)? But out of all of these films, none of them reached the sheer surrealism (or weirdness) of 1981’s An American Werewolf in London, which just reached its fortieth birthday mark this past week.

Originally released on August 21 of that year, the plot found two best friends, David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne) attacked by a werewolf while backpacking through England together. Jack is killed mercilessly, while David survives the bloody ordeal, only to carry the curse of the lycanthropy with him until his eventual transformation.

In the meantime, David is taken in by the beautiful young nurse (Jenny Agutter) who befriended him while his stay in the hospital. Unbeknownst to her, David is not only suffering from terrifyingly vivid nightmares, he’s also being paid visits from a decaying Jack, warning David of his grim fate, and urging him to take his own life before it’s too late. When the inevitable finally happens and David turns, it causes for some of the most tense animal rampage moments ever captured on screen up until that time, eventually leading to its near tear-jerking climax.

The film was written and directed by John Landis, who was previously known primarily for such slapstick hits as National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978) and The Blues Brothers (1980), which no doubt aided in the levels of dark comedy found within Werewolf. The award-winning makeup effects were handled by the legendary Rick Baker, whose resume not only includes such Hollywood blockbusters as Star Wars, but numerous other werewolf films as well, including not only the previously mentioned The Howling from the same year, but also Michael Jackson’s video for Thriller two years later (for which he and Landis were both handpicked by Jackson for their work on the film). But it was Baker’s revolutionary work on Werewolf that would forever help shape the face of the genre to come.

Even the music in the film stands out with its own sense of irony; not only are two different versions of the hit pop song “Blue Moon” featured, so is Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising” (a band Rewind It Magazine was also there to cover live in 2019 – the “Revisited” version anyway). These songs (among others) are brilliantly inserted at prime moments throughout the movie.

Since it’s release, An American Werewolf in London has become somewhat of a cult classic, and was one of those films that seemed to always be on cable TV any given Saturday afternoon in the ’90s (I still even have the VHS copy of it that I picked up at a Kmart at some point in my teens). By the end of the decade, it even spawned it’s own stunningly predictable sequel, 1997’s An American Werewolf in Paris, starring Tom Everett Scott.

But it’s the original film that will no doubt be remembered for years to come. In 2007, I was lucky enough to meet the film’s star, David Naughton (see photo below). Even then, I asked him something along the lines of why he felt the film had such a lasting effect with audiences (my early journalistic instincts obviously kicking in), to which he said (and I’m completely paraphrasing here) something along the lines of; “I think it just struck a nerve because of how different and shocking it was at the time. People were not expecting what unfolded before them at all.” I couldn’t agree with you more, David.

The author with actor David Naughton at Screamfest in Orlando, FL in 2007.