Going to the movies in the ’80s was an inexpensive pastime—one I loved more than any other activity. The sitting, the popcorn, the soda, the Milk Duds, the escape, the darkness, the stories, the acting, the special effects, the dialogue and the suspension of disbelief. Holy hell, I loved every part of that experience and I still do. Then discussing the movie with friends and family, comparing interpretation and re-laughing at the funniest parts.
Watching Movies in the 1980s
Thanks to cheap movie theaters that screened second-run movies many months after their release, even my infrequent $2 allowance afforded me the ticket price and a snack. Many films weren’t released on videotape for at least a year after the film came out in theaters. Plus, home rentals were expensive and risky; if you damaged or lost a rental, depending on the popularity of the tape, you were on the hook for $50 to $150 dollars. Most video rental stores were small businesses who were lending out their property to people with kids and pets and liquids and foods. A lot could happen in three days, if the tape came back at all. Signing up for a rental account at most places required a cash deposit, a credit card number and an agreement that you would pay full price for any lost or damaged videotapes. When we lost a tape in 1989, so my mother was charged $89.95.* She paid it, then we found it a few months later buried deep in the couch.
Every single week, my brother, my best bud Art and I would scour the movie listings in the San Jose Mercury News. The Serra Twin Theater in Milpitas, California was our go-to. They always had a tiny box advert with nearly fine print listing double-features for one dollar.
One afternoon in 1988, I noticed Serra Twin was offering an unheard of triple feature that weekend. I confirmed permission from my mother, then immediately called Art to urge him to get permission and square up a ride for us with his dad. It didn’t take much convincing to get permission and to get Art and my brother to go along:
- It would get us out of the house for the entire day—a plus for everyone;
- Cost was $1.50 for all three movies;
- We’d seen all three trailers on TV and were most interested in two of them;
- The one we were least interested in was a romantic comedy that looked boring, but luckily, it was the final film in the screening. We could leave if we weren’t into it;
- The grocery store across the street had plenty of cheap snacks for us to sneak into the theater.
The Triple Feature
Art’s dad picked us up and dropped us off at the grocery store. We stocked up and bought our tickets. The whole excursion cost less than $20.
The first film in the screening was Summer School (1987, 139 min.), a great lead-in to the triple-feature. Directed by Carl Reiner, and starring a rompy cast, including Kirstie Alley, Shawnee Smith and Mark Harmon, the latter of whom was so charming and fun. I really believed the dog in the film belonged to Harmon based on their chemistry. I mean, the dog is on the poster! Plus, Chainsaw’s and Dave’s horror movie sequence is legendary. I was not surprised at how much I enjoyed this movie as it had a perfect blend of immature and mature humor.
Repeat viewings since 1988: Caught it once or twice on basic cable, but not in this century.
The second film in the trifecta is the one I was most interested in seeing at the time. This directorial debut by Chris Columbus (Home Alone, Mrs. Doubtfire), Adventures in Babysitting (1987, 142 min.) is not the best teen comedy of the ’80s by a long shot, but it is in my personal top 5 favorite films of the genre. The movie introduced me to what a dick Bradley Whitford could play, and in my opinion, the first true cinematic representation of Thor as played by Vincent D’Onofrio, and, of course, the incredible Elisabeth Shue in her first starring role. There are some very far-fetched sequences in this movie, such as the unlikely, but entertaining Babysitting Blues performance in a Chicago blues club, but the scene also features one of my favorite all-time quotes/truths, uttered by blues legend Albert Collins: “Nobody leaves this place without singing the blues.” Put that on my tombstone.
Repeat viewings since 1988: Several dozen. At one point, I could recite the dialogue along with the movie.
*Of all things, that very expensive videotape my mother paid for was Adventures In Babysitting. She was so frustrated by that expense. We urged my mother to rent it because we wanted to see it again. We ended up watching it a lot. I’m sure we got well over $89 worth of viewings.
Rounding out the trio of films is the one I was least interested in seeing. Based on the trailer alone, I was certain that this romantic comedy was going to be a mushy, medieval vomit-fest. No part of it looked good. However, in the first several minutes of Princess Bride (1987, 138 min.) Fred Savage’s character (my age!) complains to his grandfather (played by Peter Falk, one of my faves!) that he doesn’t like the romantic stuff in the book being read to him. I like this kid! I can relate to him. This allowed me to give the film a chance and I am forever grateful. Princess Bride may be the best romantic comedy I have ever seen. Who believed Westley truly loved Buttercup? I surely did. Who knew André the Giant could be so delightful and funny? Who savored in lovingly hating the film’s antagonists? Vizzini! Humperdink! The Six-Fingered Man! Also, I just put together the fact that this film was directed by Rob Reiner, while Summer School was directed by his father. Neato! ALSO, I often tell people to have fun storming the castle! when they leave my house.
Repeat viewings since 1988: At least a few dozen times.
Serra Twin Theater
Serra Twin Theater was responsible for cementing my love of cinema with good movies and bad movies alike. Now called simply Serra Theaters, they are a much-loved home for films in a number of Indian languages.
I must also credit Serra Twin for my inexplicable love of Kevin Costner movies: In 1992, I saw a double feature of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and The Bodyguard for $1. It was a lot harder to convince Art and my brother to join me on for that combo, so I paid for them. I was 16 and had crushes on Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and Whitney Houston.
Revisiting the Triple Feature
All three movies were released in 1987. To recreate this experience—and to properly celebrate their 35th anniversary—I will host a viewing party at my house this Spring.