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Cinema Summer of 1989

The ‘Burbs, Bill &Ted, & Heathers: Success and Failure in the Suburbs

I’ve decided to start posting chapter drafts of my manuscript about the summer movies of 1989. In light of our current quarantine situation, my writing has become nothing but a chore. I know many won’t read these pages, but if you do, please share your thoughts. I hope our communication causes me to get back to writing. I hope writing once again becomes the distraction rather than the chore.

On the previous episodes of THE LAST GREATEST HOLLYWOOD SUMMER: The Preamble / Chapter 1: Die Hard on a VHS Tape / Chapter 2: Nostalgia and the Ghastly Beauty of Ill-Advised Hollywood Cinema

the 'burbs, bill & ted, heathers

When discussing the greatness of the cinematic year of 1989, it’s easy to get lost among box office sensations and high-profile sequels. When I piled up my stack of movies and rewatches, Batman and The Last Crusade loomed large, but I most looked forward to films like Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, The ‘Burbs, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Troop Beverly Hills, and Heathers, movies that represented widely varying degrees of success but have endured as testaments to the ways in which Hollywood (and its periphery) dared to entertain us when it seemed like they didn’t have anything to lose.

Let’s set the scene. February. Cloudy with a good chance of Rain Man topping the box office. 1989 wouldn’t boast a $10 million opening weekend until The ‘Burbs on February 17th, a release that also comes with the 4-day weekend asterisk.

Pop quiz: Was Joe Dante’s The ‘Burbs was a successful film?

Obviously not. Please make these questions harder so I don’t lose interest in your quizzy little book.

That’s harsh, but fair. You could learn a thing, like what Gene Siskel’s mustache had to say about The ‘Burbs: “The script would like to be a horror film, a comedy and a commentary on suburban living, but it doesn’t hit any target.” The LA Times’ Kevin Thomas called it a “grimly unfunny comedy,” an “endlessly labored spectacle” with “no discernible point…” Vincent Canby, my favorite critical curmudgeon warned that The ‘Burbs was “as empty as something can be without creating a vacuum.” All those famous film guys just corroborated your gut reaction that The ‘Burbs failed. By the way, Richard Corliss’ said that The Adventures of Baron Munchausen reeked of “corporate flop sweat.” (Those kooky film critics!)

Most of the reviews seemed to disregard Joe Dante’s specific tonal intentions. On top of that, Hollywood has proven itself incapable of selling or packaging dark comedies to inspire critical acceptance and commercial attendance. The successful ones tend to straddle other more marketable genres such as general, broad comedy (The Addams Family, 1991) or thriller (The Manchurian Candidate, 1962). Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964) remains one of the few examples of a black comedy that registered with critics and audiences. Then again, there were plenty of Bosley Crowthers who called Dr. Strangelove “the most shattering sick joke I’ve ever come across.” He didn’t mean that as a compliment. The gold standard might just be Danny DeVito’s The War of the Roses, released in December of 1989, which capitalized on the anticipated reunion of Romancing the Stone’s Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner and received widespread acclaim for its “outstanding nastiness” (Janet Maslin) and “bitter, unrelenting comedy” (Roger Ebert). Its undeniable, runaway success was good for merely 12th on the year, however, behind such decidedly non-dark laughers like Look Who’s Talking; Honey, I Shrunk the Kids; and Parenthood

As opposed to broad comedies, black (or dark) comedies rely on tone and performance rather than showy situational set pieces and out-of-context quotable dialogue, both of which play better in quick promotional trailers and talk show clips. If you Google “black comedy,” the search engine spits back some obviously acceptable entries like Heathers, but also includes some mixed messaging like Kick-Ass, Hot Fuzz, and Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). It’s no wonder that John and Jane Q. Netflixer don’t really have a firm grasp on the language of gallows humor when not even the almighty Google can supply a handful of proper examples. And speaking of Netflix, curiously enough, the genre has gained significant traction on TV and streaming with offerings like Fargo, Barry, Succession, Search Party, and Dead to Me, which calls into question everything I just wrote. Perhaps the long-format storytelling and character development smooths down the rougher edges. Do serialized television and movies become broadly successful financial hits because or despite the black humor elements?

When in doubt, return to the roots.

Though black humor can be traced back to Aristophanes (the 5th century BC), Jonathan Swift’s 1729’s satirical essay “A Modest Proposal” is probably the most known and most taught example. Swift declares that in order to solve the dual problems of hunger and overpopulation, we should start eating all the extra babies. The beauty of Swift’s essay is that he goes out of his way to support the thesis with logical nutritional and economic arguments. “A young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food…”

In his book American Dark Comedy: Beyond Satire, Wes D. Gehring composites Darwin and Freud in his reading. He says that comedy is a defense mechanism against inevitable death (from Freud) as a result of man’s understanding that life is nothing more than a haphazard series of luck in the form of evolution (Darwin). The surrealism of the form suggests an externalization of subconscious disorder. American writers, in particular, “appear more articulate about it” as a reaction to the unfortunate realities about the “anything is possible” promise of the American dream.

The existential philosophers Sartre and Heidegger loom large over humor derived from our godless, irrational world in which we cannot depend on other humans and anguish is a universal phenomenon. Funny, right? Look no further than that wholesome All-American director Frank Capra, who said his own Arsenic and Old Lace was a demonstration of the fact that comedy and tragedy are so closely aligned it doesn’t take much of a push to “send the dramatic see-saw from tears to giggles and back again.”

In Arsenic and Old Lace, a pair of old Brooklyn biddies poison lonely elderly men with elderberry wine and arsenic and their nephew (who believes himself to be Teddy Roosevelt) buries the bodies in the cellar to stop the spread of yellow fever. Arsenic shares the same structural DNA with 1989’s The ‘Burbs and Heathers (which wasn’t even given the decency of a proper theatrical release), although the latter films paint their humoristic wordplay with horror movie tropes to punctuate the tragedy. 

American humorist Brian P. Cleary perfectly captured the nature of dark comedy when he said, “A good friend will help you plant your tulips. A great friend will help you plant a gun on the unarmed intruder you just shot.” Let’s translate Cleary’s statement into cinematic terms. “A good friend will help you plant your tulips” equals romantic comedy or period drama. Self-defense against an intruder recalls any number of thriller or horror films (Wait Until Dark, Dial M for Murder, Halloween, etc.), but black comedy is the scene where two friends flounder through the maneuverings of planting a gun on the supposed intruder’s turgid corpse. You and your comically inept friend become the murderous anti-heroes or heroines of your own story. That’s black humor. That’s The ‘Burbs, or at least some of The ‘Burbs, or perhaps the The ‘Burbs living its best conceptually suburban sprawly life.

For the uninitiated, Ray Peterson (Tom Hanks) finds himself in an unrestful staycation because he hears strange happenings in his new neighbors’ basement. His neighbors are the reclusive, mostly unseen Klopeks who dig around their backyard at night and peer out of windows mysteriously. Despite his wife’s insistence, he refuses to leave the house for his vacation and leave the Klopeks alone because they’re probably fine and just regular weird and not serial killer weird. In the thankless role of 1980s housewife, Carrie Fisher carries herself with royal grace and dignity. With the assistance and encouragement of his other nebby neighbors, Art (Rick Docummun) and Vietnam vet Mark (Bruce Dern), Ray finds menace and evil suggestion at every turn. An old guy with the toupee disappears. The dog digs up a femur. Ray has chainsaw nightmares. Rick finds toupee guy’s toupee in the Klopek’s mail after he invites himself in for a meet and greet. As this is the best version of cinematic Tom Hanks, Ray’s mania increases. He becomes more desperate to prove that the Klopek’s are crazed murderers and justify his paranoid, para-militant, borderline schizophrenic behavior. Behavior that we, as viewers, totally support because goshdarnit there’s got to be something up with those neighbors! Unamerican! Uncivilized! They probably eat borscht because they like it – and not just because they got beets in their weekly CSA farm share and don’t know what else to do with Satan’s root vegetable.

The more poignant question might be whether or not The ‘Burbs is actually a black comedy… or just farce in a horror wrapper. You wouldn’t call Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) a black comedy because chiaroscuro and lighting flashes. The same applies to The ‘Burbs, which dabbles less in Swift’s tongue-in-cheek comedic stylings than broad humor, albeit broad humor about homicidal foreigners next door.

Critics disagreed on its merits, but largely throttled it. Audiences remember a Tom Hanks flop that temporarily curtailed his soaring career in the wake of Big (1988). A quick look at the box office numbers suggests another reality. The movie cost $18 million to make and recouped twice its budget at the domestic box office and $49.1 million internationally. While short of a staggering success, it’s hardly the bomb we’ve come to know. It likely made a little money for Universal, but that’s little consolation for Joe Dante who got saddled with a supposed flop after a successful run through the 1980s.

Joe Dante will always be most widely known for Gremlins, but I’d argue that The ‘Burbs fuels his most devoted fans, reacting according to Newton’s Third Law. For every negative reaction about The ‘Burbs there is an equal and opposite reaction. About The ‘Burbs he said in an interview for the Toronto International Film Festival, “It was roundly vilified when it came out, but it seems to have weathered quite well.”

The ‘Burbs represents a quintessential cult film experience. Maligned and misunderstood at the time of its release, Joe Dante’s film shoehorned cannibalism, demonology, and body snatching into mainstream cinema under the guise of suburban slapstick starring new Hollywood darling Tom Hanks, Bruce Dern, Carrie Fisher, and Corey Feldman. Five years prior, Hanks shepherded a coke-snorting donkey to a $40 million domestic box office share, so none of this subject matter should come as much of a shock. After the success of Penny Marshall’s Big, the actor responded with a series of eccentric choices not befitting a newly anointed box office wonder boy, including, in order of release, Punchline, The ‘Burbs, Turner & Hooch, Joe Versus the Volcano, and Bonfire of the Vanities.

For The ‘Burbs, however, those Hanksian expectations proved damning. Big fans, charmed by 28-year-old Elizabeth Perkins knowingly having sex with a pubescent boy, flocked to The ‘Burbs and found their expectations for wholesome family entertainment put through a PG-rated wood chopper. Collective mainstream audiences are notoriously short on memory and attention and oddly myopic.

Cult movies that come through the Hollywood system happen largely because of unmet expectation. Good – even great – movies suffer the misapplied judgment of audiences and critics that come face to face with a movie they just can’t quite wrap their heads around. The term “cult” applies to movies of all shapes, genres, and abilities – but glossy, high functioning cult movies from within the studio system arise because people get swept into a movie for reasons other than the movie itself. Studios have never figured out how to sell a wicked comedy. Universal, for what it’s worth, actually does a pretty good job with this trailer The ‘Burbs, but you’ll note how it foregrounds most every slapstick sequence in the film.

It wasn’t too long ago that the box office life of a movie depended on more than an opening weekend. Raiders of the Lost Ark, for example, became a huge hit for Paramount despite their inability to advance market the film. In Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer, Tom Shone says, “…and while the film would eventually take in $209 million, more than any film in Paramount’s history until that point, it did so under its own steam and in its own time, chugging around at the $1.5 million-a-week mark for the best part of the next year…” Raiders of the Lost Ark made only $8 million during its opening weekend. Recall that The ‘Burbs made $11 million in its first weekend. More than Raiders. (More than Big.)

Patience waned in the intervening eight years for a couple of reasons. Sure, there were more theaters available for exhibition, but there were also more movies competing for those cushy multiplex venues. For a specific point of comparison, fewer movies were released in June of 1981 (prime movie season) than were released in The ‘Burbs’ February of 1989.

Secondly, the home video release window had narrowed. With sell-through movies becoming increasingly more common (they were virtually non-existent in 1981), studios began to explore ways to cash in on the new demand for home video. Successful movies saw their theatrical runs shortened to capitalize on VHS sales. Likewise, exhibitors rushed slagging performers out of theaters to decrease competition for presumably more successful enterprises.

Raiders of the Lost Ark would never have had the opportunity to hang around in theaters for more than a year making about $1.5-2 million per week. It would have been ushered onto sell-through home video, thus clearing the path for another movie to open big. In March of 1982 after 10 months in theaters, Raiders still played on more than 600 screens.

Even though the winds of change had started to reconfigure the cinematic landscape, some movies still managed to take the market by surprise, if only on a smaller scale. Released the same day as The ‘Burbs, February 17, 1989, a little Orion Pictures teen comedy arrived in 1,196 theaters across the United States. Critics had already panned the film. It starred a 25-year-old actor who’d last appeared in a supporting role in Stephen Frears’ Dangerous Liaisons and a 24-year-old tertiary Lost Boy. The biggest star? A controversial, counterculture comedian best known by the wider populace for his “seven dirty words” routine, George Carlin.

I didn’t have the pleasure of seeing Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure in the cinema. It snuck into cinemas with little marketing, when most movies appeared in theaters as an afterthought – yet this teen comedy about California dimwits placed third behind The ‘Burbs and Rain Man (in its tenth week of release). Unlike The ‘Burbs, however, Bill & Ted‘s audience grew.

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure represents a typical 1980s filmmaking methodology. Easy to market and easy to read from an audience’s perspective. An inherently absurd high-concept that falls apart after any amount of scrutiny – yet the viewer’s entertained enough by the movie’s pure joy of existence (and puerile historical gags and references) to bother with anything as tedious as how Bill and Ted irrevocably rewrite history by creating a bromance between Socrates and Billy the Kid… or how the fate of the world hinged on a single oral history report.

The film also – and this is perhaps the most important aspect of Bill & Ted’s success as it supposedly bests a notorious failure like The ‘Burbs – celebrates its title characters’ positivity rather than sneering derisively at their inferior intellect. Consider the fundamentally different approaches between Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure and the vapidity of Dude, Where’s My Car? (2000), a certain Bill & Ted descendant. Despite their slacker wrapping, Bill S. Preston Esquire and Ted Theodore Logan were given agency that turned caricatures into fully rendered and even relatable humans. A movie in which two failures have already saved the world with the power of a transcendent guitar riff – but first must overcome the minor hurdle of getting an A+ in an oral History exam by traveling back in time to collect figures of historical interest. It’s like borrowing the 1927 Yankees to win your kickball game – if upon that kickball game the fate of the world hinged.

Like The ‘Burbs, contemporaneous critics struggled with Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. As Chris Williams of the LA Times wrote, they saw “a glorification of dumbness for dumbnesses’ sake.” The New York Times’ Vincent Canby called it “painfully inept.” The Washington Post’s Hal Hinson: “undernourished.” With all due respect to these writers on cinema, they got it royally wrong, dudes. Some of that can be credited, once again, to expectation. Into that theater they brought the burden of every other inept comedy about moronic ne’er-do-wells upon which they’d been forced to opine.

Professional film critics would also have to think long and hard before enthusiastically recommending a movie about dumb characters in a high-concept movie full of logic gaps and impossible scenarios. Can you ever imagine Bosley Crowther writing a glowing review for Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure? Moviegoers, however, have not been saddled with the onus of career-justifying negativity. The ‘Burbs and Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, like the best pure entertainment, present a fantasy version of the real world unblemished by our physical, grinding realities.

But we’re told that one succeeded while the other one failed.

The characters’ intelligence doesn’t post an artificial barrier to their success. In many instances stupid characters arrest the narrative as the result of an inability to move the plot forward. Momentum occurs despite a lack of agency. Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter boast tremendous on-screen chemistry, as if they’re acting as displaced halves of the same brain. Together they’re incentivized – because the fate of the world – to achieve an A on their oral report and score with some bodacious medieval babes. You could analyze Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure from dozens of different directions, but the success of the film relies on the synergy of the actors.

Though lacking in book smarts (Caesar will always remain “a salad dressing dude[1]”), Bill and Ted demonstrate quick wits and even an ability to manipulate the logic of the film, thereby outsmarting the viewer that’s assured himself of his superior intelligence because he knows a thing or two about Napoleon. The most magnificent moment in the film undermines that supposed viewer superiority.

Early in Excellent Adventure, Ted’s dad asked Ted about the missing keys[2], but the boys have no clue as to their whereabouts. Later, when Bill and Ted need to rescue their historical figures from jail, they wish they had those very same keys. After a pensive moment, Bill exclaims, “If only we go back in time to when he had them and steal them then.” “Well, why can’t we?” Ted asks, suggesting that after the report, they’ll just go back in time, steal the keys, and put them outside the police station. Presto! The keys appear behind the very same sign – but it’s not technically magic (movie magic, maybe) – it’s our “dumb” characters riffing on the physical laws of the time-travel film and manipulating audience expectation. They might not know how to pronounce “Socrates” correctly, but they’re clever enough in a crisis to manipulate the spacetime continuum.

“Hey! It was me who stole my dad’s keys!” Ted exclaims.

When I revisited Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure for the first time in many years for this chapter, I worried it wasn’t going to hold the same spell over me. I found myself dissecting the movie to see what held it all together. I focused on the time travel fallacies and questioned why any of it worked at all. I’m happy to report, none of it mattered. Sure, there’s that issue of nostalgia to consider. Could I ever really rewrite my longstanding opinion of a movie I watched dozens of times as a younger me?

I found myself drawn to the ways the movie manipulated expectation. Arriving in theaters months before the release of Back to the Future II certainly helped. Once Back to the Future II began diagramming parallel timelines and warning about time paradoxes, Bill and Ted might have had a harder time casually solving their own conundrums with the pinky promise of future time travel. The scene with the keys, for example, or the early meeting of the two pairs of Bill and Teds (which according to Back to the Future’s laws might have made the universe implode). Unlike testy critics, a viewer will only care to pick apart a narrative if they’re not entertained to distraction. Pure entertainment doesn’t require the “how” or the “why;” it just requires a willing ignorance, an embrace of our own dumbness as viewers. Regarding Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, I’m happy to glorify my own dumbness if it means I can still experience childlike euphoria while watching movies.

The face-value absurdity of Joan of Arc commandeering an aerobics class or Genghis Khan attacking a sporting goods store on a skateboard, Beethoven simultaneously tickling two electric keyboards. Napoleon throwing a tantrum at a water park called Waterloo. These remain simple gags – albeit gags graced with rapid-fire abundance and an ingenious high-concept wrapper.

Director Stephen Herek had a solid, but unsung movie career before the studios got ahold of talents and ushered him into routine, forgettable fare. He began his career with Critters, Bill & Ted, Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead and The Mighty Ducks (all crowd pleasers) before taking on more “grown-up” films like Mr. Holland’s Opus, Rock Star and Holy Man. The pace of those so-called dumb entertainment movies just agreed with him. Not every filmmaker treats populist or “dumb” entertainment with the kind of respect required for two idiot savants to turn the tables on the viewer.

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure cost $10 million in 1989 and returned $40 million. Both Bill & Ted and The ‘Burbs cleared $30 million dollars above production budget. These types of numbers don’t figure marketing or standard studio overhead, and I know that box office success is just a number, an artificial barometer for cinematic success. To trace the studio valuation of a film and consider how the fundamental production ideology shifts from one generation to the next, one absolutely must follow the money.

When was the last time you heard someone call Bill & Ted a box office bomb? Still not bad for two idiot teens from San Dimas, California that surprised us all with a deceptively smart, super dumb movie back in 1989. Perception and expectation shape the legacy of any movie. Those initial opening-weekend responses can take generations to overcome.

And now you’re probably asking, “But didn’t you mention that stone cold classic Heathers way back in the beginning of this chapter?” I’m so glad you asked. What was your impression of Heathers back in 1989? Did you love it like everyone else did?

Trick question.

Nobody saw Heathers in the theater. If you did, I congratulate you on your incredible luck and foresight, which stands head and shoulders above my feat of seeing UHF twice theatrically. Heathers appeared on only 35 screens in the U.S. on March 31st, 1989, making a total of $263,000 in its first week of release. And it’s not as if New World had prepared a word-of-mouth grassroots campaign to boost business. The movie dropped down to 26 theaters the subsequent week – even though its per theater average remained higher than anything except the box office champion Major League.

Despite good word of mouth and reviews, New World failed to provide any kind of promotional push. Calling Heathers a failure based on box office numbers would be a disservice. It didn’t even have the opportunity to fail. It’s not a very telling comparison, but one I’ll dare to make anyway. Heathers made more per screen in its opening week than every 1989 weekly box office winner until Pet Sematary opened on April 21. Box office numbers rely on so many factors outside the movies control that it’s futile to judge merit – but it is useful when considering trends, marketing efficacy and studio ineptitude. New World wasn’t just inept – it was legitimately bankrupt… but it did own Marvel Comics, so it had that going for it.

Co-founded by Roger Corman and his brother Gene in 1970 (following their departure from AIP), New World Pictures, Ltd. became the last national low-budget film distributor. Devoted to making low-budget films by new talent, New World launched the careers of Jonathan Demme, Jonathan Kaplan, Ron Howard, Paul Bartel, and Joe Dante. They also acted as the U.S. distributor for foreign films from Ingmar Bergman, Fellini, and Kurosawa. In 1984, the company split into New World International, New World Television and New World Video – the purposes of which should all be self-explanatory. In 1986, they acquired Marvel Entertainment Group, the parent company of Marvel Comics. It would later attempt to acquire toymakers Kenner and Mattel.

In 1988, the year that New World premiered a little film called Heathers in Italy, the company fended off Chapter 11. In 1989, New World began selling itself piecemeal to investors. Would Heathers have become a box office hit with full studio support? I enjoy the hypotheticals as much as the next fellow, but it’s hard to see Heathers getting studio support – even in 1989. But if not in 1989, when? The ‘Burbs didn’t survive the grinder with superstar Tom Hanks. What hope did Heathers, with its fresh-faced Christian Slater and Winona Ryder, have of financial success?

By the time I became aware of Heathers it had already become a VHS success story. Heathers never registered as a failure, like The ‘Burbs for example, because it didn’t appear on pop culture radars in order to be pre-maligned. It had no stigma to overcome. When teenagers discovered it many moons later, Christian Slater and Winona Ryder had become teen icons. It appeared in video stores as if by magic, free of expectations or critical derision. It became an important personal discovery to everyone that picked up on that VHS box on a whim.

What does “success” mean for a film’s ongoing legacy? Our notion of success shifts as time grinds away at a film’s critical and commercial imprint. Heathers left no box office footprint but isn’t considered a failure. The ‘Burbs made money and has crawled its way to cult status but can’t totally shake that original impression. Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure endures as a kind of comedy classic despite a negative critical reaction. Expectation and success hold hands in the darkened theater when no one’s looking.

Universal wanted to market Big‘s likable manchild Tom Hanks in promoting Joe Dante’s black suburban comedy. Audiences went in expecting and wanting something other than it received. What did anyone expect out of teenage dimwits Bill and Ted? Or a VHS box featuring teal and hot pink and four hot girls dressed in black?

Studios hadn’t yet focused their production dollars solely on sure things. They liked to play the long shots, too. The ‘Burbs and Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure were new intellectual properties, one released by a big studio (Universal) and one released by the relatively minor Orion Pictures. The one with the big star and big studio had big expectations. The one with little stars and a little studio had hopes, but low expectations. The latter also had the benefit of upbeat positivity rather than a wicked sense of humor.

Let’s scrobble all the way back to that initial question: Was The ‘Burbs a failure? (Not really.)[3]

Bonus question for extra credit: Was Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure a success? (Totally.)

Bonus bonus question for posterity: Did you see Heathers in a theater? Iron a scout patch onto your favorite shirt.

The disparate fates of these three movies highlighted something unique about the movie marketplace as it approached the end of the 1980s. Big studios, mid-sized production companies run by studio escapees, and little guys all jockeyed for theatrical real estate. Mid-major studios such as Orion, Geffen, and New Line, co-existed alongside the MGMs and Universals. They also had more leeway when it came to waiting and seeing. The majors had increasingly less patience with disappointing box office receipts. If a film didn’t meet expectations during its opening weekend, it would disappear to make room for another movie, another lotto ticket that might hit big.

The sequels and franchises had just started to mark the landscape with increasing frequency, but they weren’t considered tentpoles, not yet, and they hadn’t become the focus of the majors. R-rated comedies, black and otherwise, were still considered potential moneymakers. The quick hook for movies like The ‘Burbs portended a certain kind of future for the cinematic marketplace. The majors started to focus on the inherent market instability in producing new intellectual properties without an established audience. Not even proper movie stars could guarantee success. It wasn’t that this had ever always been the case, but as studios became cogs in larger moneymaking machines, such as Columbia’s sale to Sony for $3.4 billion in September of 1989, only sure things began to make sense.

In the meantime, however, The ‘Burbs, Bill & Ted and Heathers could all co-exist and find their success in their own time. These specific market conditions wouldn’t last for much longer, but we weren’t wise enough to see where it was all headed. It’s an impossible thing to say we were better off in 1989. Any such claim burdened by the exclusionary perspectives of those that lived it at the expense of those that didn’t. We can only look backwards and appreciate the moment that gave us these three enduring comedies. We can point to these examples as great movies they wouldn’t make anymore, our parents walked uphill both ways, binge-watching TV shows doesn’t allow you time to anticipate and appreciate the time that went into making it, Napoleon is a short, dead dude and Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife.

That about sums it up.


[1] For years I heard this line as “solid dressing dude,” and honestly this works just as well as “salad dressing dude” because that Roman toga really does offer a certain untapped appeal as an alternative to my day-to-day wardrobe of jeans and a t-shirt (hoodie, weather dependent).

[2] Chekhov’s Missing Keys

[3] The ‘Burbs made more opening weekend. It opened in more theaters and made more money per theater. After five weeks in release, The ‘Burbs disappeared. Bill and Ted remained excellent for another four weeks, only surpassing The ‘Burbs box office gross in week 7. The final tally? Bill & Ted: $40 million in 9 weeks. The ‘Burbs: $36 million in 5.

By jdp

Pittsburgh-based freelance writer, movie watcher and vinyl crate digger. I've interviewed Tom Hanks and James Bond and it was all downhill from there.