Here Comes Summer: ‘70s and ‘80s Movie Edition

Catherine Springer takes a trip back to the 70s and 80s to recommend some classic summer movies.

School’s nearly out, so here are some suggestions for some classic summer flicks to get you in the mood for a summer like no other.

ONE CRAZY SUMMER (1986)

It doesn’t get more ‘80s or summer-y than this 1986 classic from writer/director Savage Steve Holland, whose second feature is a twisted, bizarre, and trope-filled summer romp of the most immature kind. Packed with Airplane!-esque sight gags, animation, and darkly funny moments that seem totally out of place in a movie this silly, One Crazy Summer has everything you could ask for in an 80s comedy. At least among its many peers, what makes it stand out is the uniquely offbeat sensibility Holland brings to it, following in the footsteps of his feature debut from 1985, Better Off Dead. Cusack serves as Holland’s perfectly-played muse in both films, an actor who, early in his career, learned how to walk that delicate line between leading man and comically zany character actor, a trait he parlayed into a long career. He’s just cute enough to make the girls swoon, just weird enough to fit in with the oddballs. In One Crazy Summer, Cusack woos a young Demi Moore. Still, the romance aspect of the film is really secondary to the crazy antics of the weirdly perfect ensemble, which include the King of the 80s Nerds Curtis Armstrong, the kookily charming Tom Villard, Matt Mulhern as the prototypical blonde meathead, Mark Metcalf, who adds new levels to his iconic Niedermeyer character from Animal House, Jeremy Pivin as a preppy baddie, and the inimitable Bobcat Goldthwait in perhaps the most Bobcat Goldthwait performance of his career. While mostly known for his role of Zed in the Police Academy films, Goldthwait’s unique comic shtick has never been more fully realized than in One Crazy Summer, his stammering, fitful, vocal cord-shredding delivery at its weird, strangely charming best. The music is as 80s as it gets, from soundtrack cuts straight off the charts to a score that practically oozes neon.

Classic summer moment:  A boat regatta

What hasn’t aged well:  Animal cruelty played for laughs

What’s timeless: Underdog gang of misfits overcoming the rich bullies

FRIDAY THE 13th (1980)

What would summer be without camp? In this classic horror film that birthed an entire sub-genre, it’s impossible not to see now, forty years later, both meanings of the word. The original slasher film, which brought the deranged serial killer Jason to our pop-culture consciousness, is the perfect anti-summer movie, as it takes everything we love about summer—escaping to nature, young people in bathing suits, a cabin on a lake—and turns it into a nightmare, set on Camp Crystal Lake on a warm Friday in June.  As the first of its kind, Friday the 13th might be expected to be a bit rough around the edges, but, looking back at it now, forty years later, the campiness of it refers to so much more than its setting. Its silly and overly gratuitous depictions of gory deaths, stupid teens who make bad decisions, and cheesy killer-POV camerawork make Friday the 13th much more of a laugh riot than a fright fest. Still, despite our modern desensitization to violence which makes its comparably tame horrors not as impactful, there will always be something scary about being in the middle of the woods in the middle of the night with a killer on the loose, and the essence of this classic will always hold up. Friday the 13th is simple in its pretense and its execution. It will live forever as the original, groundbreaking tall tale that kids whisper to each other around the campfire on a warm summer evening.

Classic summer moment:  Teens splashing around in a lake

What hasn’t aged well:  The blatant sexism and casual racism

What’s timeless: Kevin Bacon, who literally has been in everything

JAWS (1975)

The film that literally invented the summer blockbuster is also the ultimate movie about summer. I dare you to find another film that better captures that sense of hot summer days spent by the beach, swimming in the ocean, soaking up the rays. You can smell the sweat and sunscreen, you can taste the salt water, and you can feel the oppressive heat hanging in the air. The success of Jaws was built on the introduction of terror into one of the most pleasurable and idyllic settings, capitalizing on the intrinsic joy of a beach in summer and the tranquility of a smooth, calm ocean. We go to the beach in the summer to escape the urban hustle and bustle, to relax in a peaceful setting, to engage with nature, and leave all worries behind. Director Steven Spielberg had other plans. Jaws is a classic for every reason: the performances, the story, the acting, the characters, the score, the direction, and the pure adrenaline rush from one of the most perfectly calibrated thrillers ever made.

Classic summer moment:  Fourth of July party

What hasn’t aged well:  Bruce, the animatronic shark

What’s timeless: The John Williams score

DIRTY DANCING (1987)

If you thought summer camp for kids was cheesy, wait until you get summer camp for adults. Long before Marvelous Mrs. Maisel took us to the Catskills, director Emile Ardolino and stars Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey bewitched an entire generation of women with the guilty pleasure classic Dirty Dancing. Set in an upstate New York summer resort for rich Manhattan-ites, Dirty Dancing romanticizes nearly every aspect of a summer family getaway in the same way that National Lampoon’s Vacation ridicules it. And yet Dirty Dancing isn’t about family at all; it’s about that other classic summer trope: the coming-of-age story. What is summer for, if it isn’t for challenging your beliefs, tackling your upper-class privilege, and discovering your sexuality while also learning the meringue. Sure, the film makes a valid attempt to tackle some “real-life” issues and tries to convince us that anyone cares about Baby’s self-awakening, but, in the end, the only thing we’re here for is Swayze in all his beauty, charm, and swiveling hips.

Classic summer moment:  The talent show

What hasn’t aged well:  Lisa’s obsession with losing her virginity

What’s timeless:  Patrick Swayze

CADDYSHACK (1980)

One of the greatest comedies of all time, Caddyshack can never be overlooked when it comes to summer movies. Set in a swanky, stuffy country club that pits the rich members versus the working-class staffers, director Harold Ramis struck comedy gold with an assemblage of some of the most gifted comedic actors of a generation, including Rodney Dangerfield, Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, and Ted Knight, allowing them to improvise most of their lines, resulting in a fresh, edgy and hilarious instant classic. The famously party-like on-set atmosphere bled into the scenes, filled with a creative abandonment, allowing the comedy to come naturally. The result is an eminently re-watchable movie filled with classic one-liners, physical comedy, and a furry, animatronic bandit who dances his way into movie history. But the improvisational genius of the comedy giants in the film, all at their peak, makes Caddyshack a must-see, no matter the season.

Classic summer moment:  The pool scene

What hasn’t aged well: Casual racism played for laughs

What’s timeless: Dangerfield’s insults

LITTLE DARLINGS (1980)

A much less uproarious and wacky summer camp movie than Meatballs, Little Darlings is considerably more serious than would be expected for a teen summer camp movie. The classic camp movie moments, like a montage of camp activities and a food fight sequence that looks like it was way too much fun to shoot but don’t be deceived by the outwardly silly appearance. Little Darlings is clearly just a vehicle for its two teen stars, Tatum O’Neal and Kristy McNichol, to transition from child star to ingenue by giving them a semi-serious movie about their characters losing their virginity. This movie could never be made now, but, in 1980, it was a huge hit and did prove to keep O’Neal and McNichol on their star trajectories, despite their overly-feathered hair. The movie also boasts a very early performance from another young actor, Matt Dillon (with his own feathered hair), in only his second movie role. It’s also fun to see a very young Cynthia Nixon making her film debut as a 15-year old hippie.

Classic summer moment: Lake swimming

What hasn’t aged well:  Sexualizing 15-year olds

What’s timeless: Teenage rivalries

NATIONAL LAMPOON’S VACATION (1983)

Harold Ramis only directed eleven movies before his untimely death in 2014. Still, two of them are on this list, the first being Caddyshack, his directorial debut, and the second, National Lampoon’s Vacation, the world’s introduction to the hapless Griswold family and their unending pursuit of the perfect family summer adventure. Adventure would be an understatement in this movie that centers on the clueless, bumbling, yet well-meaning Dad who makes every bad choice possible while trying to get his family cross-country to Walley World, a not-so-veiled stand-in for Disneyland. Anything that can go wrong does, and it tests not only Clark Griswold’s positive outlook but his sanity. Chevy Chase, despite how we may feel about him today, was a superstar in the ‘80s. His characterization of the dumb loser who still manages to stumble his way through life unscathed is not only comic perfection but a telling reflection of life in white America at the time. This movie is VERY white, and the one scene where the family makes a “wrong turn” into the black neighborhood is cringe-inducing now. There’s a lot about this movie that is dated and couldn’t (and shouldn’t) be done now, but that doesn’t negate its position as a summer comedy classic.

Classic summer moment:  Road trip!

What hasn’t aged well:  Randy Quaid

What’s timeless: “Holiday Road.”

MEATBALLS (1979)

Bill Murray’s second appearance on this list is the movie that made him a movie star, two years after he skyrocketed to comedy fame as a cast member of Saturday Night Live. Meatballs would be the first of three pairings between director Ivan Reitman and Murray, who would make Stripes and Ghostbusters together. It’s clear the two are still fine-tuning in this wacky and expectedly immature summer camp movie that is everything you expect and want from a light-hearted teen comedy, but with the added spice of Bill Murray at his most eccentric. Meatballs’ quintessential summer camp movie follows all the expected tropes but does it with buoyant ease. While Murray tends to lean a little too much on his SNL-inspired aggressiveness, his charming friendship with an outcast camper, played by Chris Makepeace in his film debut, is warm and believable. Overall, the film can overcome its flaws, including a very dated, still-stuck-in-the-‘70s soundtrack, to still hold up as the camp movie to which all other camp movies are still compared. Although, in the end, it just doesn’t matter!

Classic summer moment: Singing around the campfire

What hasn’t aged well: Naming a kid “Spaz” and all that overly aggressive “flirting” that today would be called assault

What’s timeless: Cool camp counselors

Written by
Catherine is a shameless child of the ‘80s who discovered her passion for movies when she was 12 and has never looked back. As the daughter of an American diplomat, she spent the first 18 years of her life as an international nomad, but, when it came time to choose a college and set down roots, there was no other option than Los Angeles, a true industry town where movies touch and flavor everything. She wouldn’t be anywhere else. The only thing she loves as much as watching movies is writing about them. 15 years ago, she started her own movie blog, CathsFilmForum.com, which has been her pride and joy. Her reviews have been published in newspapers and movie reference guides and is currently a contributor to AwardsWatch.com. She is Rotten Tomatoes-approved and a proud member of The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, the Hollywood Critics Association, and the Online Association of Female Film Critics. And, although she loves sports, there is no better season than Oscar season. She owes everything to Tootsie for lighting the flame and to Premiere Magazine for keeping it lit.

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