1993: The Dream of the Nineties In Film

So, Where Was I In 1993?

This was a bad, bad year of school. I’d been targeted by a group of bullies I shared my last period biology class with, and they were as cruel as they were relentless. The bullying was never physical (like most careful tormentors, they preferred mind games to anything leaving a physical trace of evidence), but the wounds still sting even now when I think about them. While I’d come off a year which was academically disastrous, I would have mirthfully taken another like it again just to avoid having to be an emotional punching bag.

Additionally, my failure to live up to my teacher’s standards in freshman year resulted in being dropped from all of my AP courses because of my own dereliction. I’m not built for algebra, and ninth grade English assignments were horrifically boring (I still hate Dickens). Add to this that there were a series of intense storms that year – blizzards in fact. I’d never seen so much snow outside of the state of Wisconsin. This was also the year I started Driver’s Ed. For a kid who’s scared of everything, there’s nothing like learning to drive on a sheet of ice.

Still, there were upsides. I didn’t have to go to confirmation classes any longer. This meant that I’d ditched an earlier group of bullies as well as having escaped having protestantism shoved down my throat multiple times a week. Also, my circle of friends had expanded beyond my own school. I’d met a pair of girls my age in my Junior Achievement activities after school the year prior, and they were from further off high schools. We clicked and their friends came with. It was good to have more than one crowd to run in and to see how people in other places lived. I met a lot of good folk from that experience, some of whom I’m still friends with even though we don’t have occasion to speak very often.

I’d decided I wanted to advance my interest in the arts. My skills weren’t up to task in my opinion (both then and in the present). But they were a starting point and would improve over time. I threw everything I had at my creative studies. By the time I was out of high school, six-and-a-half of my twenty-two and a half credits would be from the arts (2.5 from visual, 4.0 from music).

The Phillies had an exciting, but ultimately heartbreaking season. They made it to the World Series with a team of misfits and unexpected talent only to have the wind taken out of their sails by the Toronto Blue Jays. It was this year that created a love-hate relationship with Mitch Williams. When he was on, he was unstoppable; but on the (frequent) times he wasn’t, it was crushing. I still remember a lot of the names on the roster that year: Incaviglia, Eisenreich, Kruk, Daulton, Dykstra, Schilling, Stocker. I watched a lot of ballgames that year with my dad and my grandmother in her mobile home. Her health was failing, and though I didn’t know it at the time it was getting closer and closer to the day we’d no longer eat Kentucky Fried Chicken while watching Mitch Williams pitch until someone had a panic attack. I wasn’t sure which would destroy my heart first – the food or the pitching.

This was the year Bill Clinton would be sworn in for his first term. It wasn’t so much of an election the prior year as it was a drubbing. I remember my parents being elated, finally being able to shake off the last remnants of the Reagan Era, though they would not switch their political affiliations from Republican to Democrat until some years later.

And during this year, there were some great titles that were released, and it makes for a real hard decision for me to categorize a lot of it. But, here we go. As usual, let’s start from the bottom.

The Schlock

Return of the Living Dead III

Return of the Living Dead 3 1993
When I watched it:Circa 1998
What it taught me: Body Horror, Boundaries
Rating: ★★★

This film came after my reintroduction to zombies in my early college years. I was still known to camp out at my aunt’s house to hang out with my cousin. LIke always, when we got together we’d watch a lot of awful movies (Usually courtesy of USA’s ‘Up All Nite’ films, such as Hell Comes To Frogtown (1988). This was clearly one of them, but it moved the dial for me on account of the nature of its grotesquery.

If you’re not familiar with this particular franchise, zombies in it are the corpses of humans brought back to life by exposure to a chemical called Trioxin. This dunstance is also a hazard to the living – if should it make it into your body it will slowly kill the victim, then reanimates the corpse as a brain-eating ghoul. The victims affected by this retain their strength if they are newly dead, as well as their intelligence. This made for faster, smarter, and even devious zombies. The smarter ones were even quite articulate. One such zombie in the original Return of the Living Dead (1985) is asked “Why do you eat people” and it responds with “Not people, Brains!” When asked why though, there comes the chilling reason: ‘It makes the pain go away.” Zombies felt constant agony as their bodies rotted away. This is a pretty go-to part of the series’ mythology and it comes up again in this title. We’ll come back to this in a moment.

The movie’s plot is nothing to write home about: For kicks, a teenage boy and his girlfriend follow the boy’s dad to his top secret assignment at a local military base. While there, the couple sneaks in (because security is really lax at top secret facilities in the nineties) and they see the research going on inside – reanimating corpses with Trioxin in an attempt to turn them into relentless soldiers. It goes about as well as you’d expect: the test subject manages to kill the shit out of a pair of technicians, spooking both of the hidden observers so badly that they reveal their presence. The two kids bug out, and in the process the girlfriend gets dead. What’s a lovesick, mourning kid to do?

THe boy takes his girlfriend back to the base and reanimates her.

He does this despite the fact that he’s seen what the process does to the reanimated. This plan also goes as well as you’d expect: she comes back and immediately starts eating people while the guy does his damndest to keep her from doing just that. All the time, she’s making new zombies that the boyfriend has to deal with.

And after a while, the reanimated girlfriend starts feeling the pain of being dead and she’s not getting the brains she needs to abate it. She comes to a point where she simply has to do something about it to drive it out. So… she mutilates herself just to forget the other pain, even if for just a few moments.

THis was a new idea for me conceptually, and still a horrifying one. I remember the intense discomfort it brought.  I’be always known instinctively that it  when I write horror, I have to write about things that horrify me for it to be effective. So, while this movie was not a great work, it pushed my boundaries for horror in my future work.

I haven’t watched this film since that first time. I’m unlikely to again. Just the poster makes me shudder.

Army of Darkness

Army of Darkness 1993

When I Watched It: 1993
What it taught me: Embrace the Schlock; It’s a Trick, Get Me an Axe.
Rating: ★★★★

Ah, my introduction to Bruce Campbell. No, I had seen neither Evil Dead or Evil Dead II. I’d seen Darkman, obviously, but Bruce was in it for a grand total of thirty seconds. But, this would cement a life long appreciation of the Chin That Could Kill.

The movie is pure schlock. It doesn’t shy from it. It is what it is and makes zero apologies. It picks up right from the end of Evil Dead II after Ash Williams is whisked away via demonic portal to some time in the past. He finds himself in a medieval fortress under siege by Deadites: undead monstrosities that have besieged the fortress Ash finds himself in. Ash proceeds to be Bruce Campbell, kick demon ass, get himself into trouble, and looks cool doing it. To this day, “It’s a trick, get me an axe” remains in my vernacular and is used frequently.

Ultimately, this serves a purpose as a guilty pleasure film for me. It’s chock-a-block with one-liners, over the top effects, uncomfortable comedy, and general weirdness. And it doesn’t ever try to be anything else than what it is. Sometimes it’s best to just let a thing be what it is all the way to the hilt. To hell with ‘but is it art?’ Just enjoy Bruce Campbell shooting things in the face with a double-barrel shotgun or chainsawing zombies in half.

Demolition Man

Demolition Man 1993

When I Watched It: 1993
What it taught me: Dystopia Design By Lackluster Example
Rating: ★★★

This movie looked to have it all by the trailers and the movie posters. Wesley Snipes was getting to be an incredibly hot commoldity. Stallone hadn’t really gone to seed yet. It showcased a ridiculous utopian world that desperately needed an enema. It looked like it was going to be one of the all time greats.

Well, it didn’t quite live up to expectations (or age particularly well), but… I have a soft spot for this film.

It’s about a legendary cop and a dangerous criminal who both end up in lockup after what they both believed to be their final, explosion-and-bullet-filled confrontation. But, this is no ordinary lockup – they’re to be placed in suspended animation and released in the future as a part of a new rehabilitation system for lawbreakers. When they both are brought back from their stay in frozen pink goop, they find themselves in an almost sterile Los Angeles. There is no longer any kind of violent crime, and antisocial tendencies seem to have been largely worked out of society. Oh, and in possibly the most hubris filled ad placement ever, all restaurants are Taco Bells (violence may have been solved, but I assume gastrointestinal discomfort remains relevant). BOth men renew their rampage in a society that is no longer accustomed to even mild physical conflict, let alone the kind of violence  both ex-cons are capable of. They find themselves embroiled anew in their war against each other, and theymust struggle against a reality that is largely unfamiliar to them. Unbeknownst to both, they are moved like pawns by the new society’s creator into acts of escalating violence and societal consequence to consolidate his power.

There’s a lot to like in it. I love the technologies. I still chuckle whenever someone mentions the three seashells and the crash system that turns cars into cannolis. Bonus points for the Arnold Schwarzenegger Presidential Library. Plus, Denis Leary and the Honorable Governor of Minnesota, Jesse Ventura, all have roles.

However, for an advanced society, it seemed like there was a real lack of forethought here. You can tell five seconds after the release of Simon Phoenix that he’s already working out ways to escape his situation. And the evil mastermind? He doesn’t even see it coming. For somebody who’s supposed to be smart enough to find a way to make Los Angeles into a family-friendly city state, his fatal error seems like it could have been worked out well before his plans were executed.

Somewhere In the Middle

Dazed and Confused

Dazed and Confused 1993
When I Watched It: Circa 1997
What it taught me: Everyone Has Their Own Experience, Coming of Age Formula
Rating: ★★★★

This was a big one for people around my age. It’s not a personal favorite (probably because I don’t remember any of the seventies), but it should resonate with most people. It covers the last day of school in 1976. It follows the lives of jocks, nerds, freaks, geeks, cheerleaders, and outsiders. It’s got a memorable and expansive cast – way too many for me to list (IMDB does it better anyway). It’s a whole hour-and-a-half of seventies teenage culture, spanning the gamut from school politics, to weed culture, to youthful rebellion, to young love.

You know. The general coming of age experience.

It’s pretty stock stuff for me, but it rocks a lot of people I know right down to their core. It wasn’t such a moving thing for me really until I sat down to watch it recently with my girlfriend who did not have a standard high school experience. Whenever we watch a movie set in a public school, I get a lot of “pause this for a second and explain it to me” moments on account of her own education. I remember specifically the scene of the three freshmen led by Mitch being chased down by Ben Affleck and company. “This kind of shit happened?” my girlfriend asked. I told her I couldn’t speak directly to the seventies, but that, yeah – hazing was alive and well when I was in school. I never got a dose of it, but I knew of people who did. Those kids were mostly in athletic teams, which horrified her as a former athlete. She still can’t believe that sports teams would behave that way, but… I suppose it still goes on in high schools when and where people aren’t looking.

Additionally, this film is notable if for no other reason than its soundtrack, which covers the era pretty comprehensively.

The Nightmare Before Christmas

The Nightmare Before Christmas 1993

When I Saw It: 1993
What it taught me: Appreciation of Stop Motion, Absurdity

This movie is damn near perfect. The only reason it’s not in the personal blockbuster category is that it’s a musical, something I was woefully disappointed by at the time I first saw it (musicals are only acceptable for me if Muppets are involved – so sue me). I can hear some of you out there condemning me for this statement. I’m okay with that. It’s still a great film. I just… wish that movie production companies could deviate away from requiring animated films to rely on the musical format a bit more.

I love the idea from top to bottom. Jack Skellington, the King of Halloween Town, is obviously  all about Halloween. However, he’s starting to feel a bit worn out. While out on a walk he discovers a strange forest that hosts an odd circle of trees, each with a symbol on it. Within each tree he discovers a new holiday. But, the one he takes to is Christmas… and he decides that he could do Christmas one better than its apparent ruler: Santa Claus. Chaos and wackiness ensue as his minions kidnap Santa, and Jack takes the reins of the fat man’s sleigh. Wackiness ensues,

Technically speaking, the film is some of Burton’s finest animated works. As noted earlier, a little Tim Burton goes a long way. When you find him the right projects though, you can slather it on as broadly and as deeply as you want. He does his signature thing to great effect here. It’s a film for kids and adults (despite the singing) and it’s still a great watch.

Grumpy Old Men

Grumpy Old Men 1993

When I Watched It: 1993
What it taught me: The Value of Multiple Takes

Some classics never die. Jack Lemon and Walter Matthau go together like peanut butter and chocolate. Their career goes back forever and they always bring the same chemistry to every film they work in. Grumpy Old Men was no exception.

Two old men in the freezing winter of the northern midwest are always at each others throats. Things escalate when a new woman comes to town and gets all of the older men gunning for her hand. The two basically thwart each others advances on her while Burgess Meredith quietly takes the show with amazing one-liners.

I remember how goddamned funny Meredith was. His outtakes were amazing. While I was aware that ad-lib takes were a thing as a kid, I didn’t believe there could be so much material left on the cutting room floor. The gag reel was something else.

Falling Down

Falling Down 1993

When I Watched It: Circa 1994
What it taught me: The Downward Spiral

This film didn’t quite pass muster for parental money at the time, but I caught it sometime later when it came to HBO without parental knowledge. It wasn’t something I think I was fully ready to absorb at that age, and only when I watched it later did all of the nuance of it come in focus.

Michael Douglas is a highly educated man who is having a breakdown. He’s angry, he’s on edge, and while waiting in commuter traffic in L.A.  on the way to visit his daughter, he just… loses it. He begins taking his frustrations out on anyone who gets in his way or who he views as being a part of an unjust society. His ensuing rampage brings about an LAPD manhunt.

I remember watching as a kid and thinking that it would be impossible for someone to just snap like that. Naive to be sure, but it didn’t make sense. I didn’t have a full scope at my age to really grasp it how a life can go so wrong. How external circumstance (random or designed) can snap a person in half mentally. To know the frustration of a world that just isn’t going to yield for you. To know the utter frustration of a man who feels spent and useless. I can’t say I know know all of it feels – but I can definitely see how it works now.

Personal Blockbusters

Groundhog Day

Groundhog Day 1993

When I Saw It: 1993
What it taught me: Films Can Be More Than One Thing, The Language of Comedy

Time makes the difference. I was fifteen when I saw this film, and I had a lot of growing up to do yet. So when this got watched it was just a surreal comedic experience in the eyes of a child

As such, I remember this film being relegated to the rubbish bin for a while. I know. Stupid, right? But to understand this you need two pieces of information. First was my aforementioned lack of an adult’s perspective at the time. The second thing was that it got watched heavily. This movie was always popular, so it was on TV frequently. We had it on VHS at the house (taped from HBO) so we could watch it whenever we wanted. After a while, repetition built  a kind of aversion (“Oh man, Groundhog’s Day again? Do you even see the irony, Mom?”).

Having rewatched it recently, I freaking love it again.

To say Bill Murray is a favorite actor would be to sell him short. He was basically idolized by me for Ghostbusters (1984) alone before tossing in other countless personal hits like Lost In Translation (2003), Stripes (1981), Caddyshack (1980), or Scrooged (1988) just to name a few. He’s a master at… well everything, but comedy stands out. He knows exactly the right time to go fucking crazy, when to deadpan, and when exactly to drop the crucial one-liner. And, like other comedians who find a talent for drama (Robin Williams or Tom Hanks come to mind) he knows how to convey emotion and to lay it all on the table. And he does drama, comedy, and romance in Groundhog’s Day while simultaneously turning the dial up to eleven. He knows how to make a film that is about more than one thing. I just felt Groundhog Day was silly as a kid, but you feel the gravitas of his existence as he goes from doing crazy shit each repeating day, to a loss of lust for life, to existential despair, and then back to a sense of true appreciation for more than his original narcissistic needs.

Seriously, if they don’t teach how to make movies like this in film school, they ought to.

Last Action Hero

Last Action Gero 1993

When I Saw It: 1993
What it taught me: How To Make a Parody

This film had been pumped up for a couple months prior to opening as a standard, go-to, Schwarzenegger-beat-em-up with a fantastical edge. People went in expecting something in the vein of Termintator 2 (1991) and got a quirky movie about subverting the action film genre.

It… did not go well for a couple reasons.

Obviously this was not a follow-up in vein with cool cyborgs doing crazy shit with a veneer of reality over it to thrill the summer crowd with eday action and tense combats. Summer blockbuster, it was not. People were not prepped to have their expectations inverted.

Second, bad timing can kill a film. When you release a film like this within a week of Jurassic Park (1993), you’re kinda screwed from the get go.

But, there is a small sub-set of people like me that ate it up. My family, all of us, loved it. It laid bare everything about action movie logic’s extreme faults and then decided to just run with it. My favorite scene may have been the one where Jack Slater drops a bomb-rigged corpse, and then himself, into the La Brea Tar Pits, effectively pulling off an elaborate setup meant to deliver a goddamned fart joke. Then, he hops out of the tar pit and is handed a paper towel. There’s a single jump cut, and when they cut back to Slater – seconds later – his face is totally clean (2:43).

Runner up mention goes to the scene where a hapless extra gets killed by an ice cream cone.

And for portraying Stallone as the Terminator in Blockbuster Video (remember those?).

And for Robert Patrick as the Terminator 1000 from T2 and Sharon Stone as Catherine Tramell from Basic Instinct (0:23) showing up as cameos in the LA police department.

And, “There’s always a guy in there.”

I could go on. There’s dozens, maybe hundreds of little things that compact in on each other like a lump of coal transforming into a diamond in this film. It’s really at the head of the class for me.



Tombstone 1993

When I Saw It: 1993
What it taught me: An Appreciation of History, Don’t Buy All Your History From Hollywood
Rating: ★★★★★

Westerns were not a part of growing up in a manner of speaking. I don’t know if there was a casual disdain for them in my house, or if it was just something that didn’t come up often. While my dad was an armchair historian of the Civil War / Post-Civil War era, it was almost always exclusive to the eastern states. I knew of westerns, and I’d heard something about a gunfight at the OK Corral – but I hadn’t ever done any homework on either subject. That changed in the winter of 1993.

My father, myself, and a couple of friends all went to see it together. As I watched I got the story of the conflicts of the titular boomtown at the border of Arizona and Mexico (with the standard admonition of my Father to ‘not get all my history from Hollywood’). Of course, this town’s legacy has had many tellings before this film in the form of  dime novels, dry histories, and movies. It’s been romanticized to hell and back, and even the aforementioned histories are debated over by scholars over a hundred years later. But this romanticization was by far one of the best for a lot of folks’ money.

The titanic figures of the old west certainly got a hell of a cast: Val Kilmer’s portrayal of failed dentist and legendary cardsharp and gunslinger will probably go down as the best in cinematic history. Equally powerful was Kurt Russel as the renowned lawman, Wyatt Earp (who in real life was a bit of a bastard I’m told). Bill Paxton and Sam Elliott play Morgan and Virgil Earp respectively. The rogue’s gallery was filled out by Michael Biehn as the bloodthirsty Johnny Ringo and Powers Boothe as Curly Bill Brocius.

This film awoke an interest in the Old West – one that carries on with me to this day. While the Old West usually wasn’t as vicious and action packed as portrayed in the film (violence sells penny dreadfuls and seats at the cinema the world over after all), there was much to learn about the mostly lawlessness territories and the people with enough sand in their boots to brave it. It got me to read more deeply into the topic and to eventually run a year long campaign of Deadlands, a western-horror themed roleplaying game (probably my favorite game I ever ran).

True Romance

True Romance 1993

When I Saw It: 1997
What it taught me: This Christian Slater Guy is All Right, Punchy Dialog, Love Is Messy, What’s Old Is New

I would never have found this film if not for my rapacious viewings of Pulp Fiction (1994) and Reservoir Dogs (1992). Once Tarantino’s name was good and lodged into my frontal cortex, I sought out other works. While this film wasn’t directed by Tarantino, he’d written the script, and it showed. His archetypal punchy dialog was omnipresent, as was his tendency toward extreme violence. The story of the Hooker With a Heart of Gold is an old one (this example probably isn’t even the oldest), but Tarantino manages to rouse it from it’s musty archetype and inject it with all of the stuff we’ve come to love from his quirky style.

It depicts a love that is as deep as it is star-crossed and dysfunctional – another concept that’s probably as old as time. And, let’s be honest, even the healthiest of romances is not without strife and dysfunction along the line at one point or another. This film just decides to pack as much of it as it can into a single two-hour block. And there’s no way you don’t come out of that without great drama and storytelling opportunities. Love is messy. Love is hard. Maybe not as hard as this movie portrays it, but the film sure doesn’t shy away from that central tenet.

The cast was inspiring too – Of course there’s the actor and actress with top billing on the poster – Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette (how many Arquettes has Hollywood pushed out at us?). But on top of it you get a powerful (and horrifyingly racist) torture scene with Dennis Hopper and  Christopher Walken where Hopper has to spout off whatever awful insults he thinks Walken will react to enough to earn a swift, angry death as opposed to a calculated, drawn out one. James Gandolfini gets a bit part as well before he went on to make HBO’s breakout hit series The Sopranos (1999-2007). Other bit parts were there: Gary Oldman as a dreadlocked pimp and Brad Pitt as a couch-bound pothead who takes hits off a bong made out of a plastic honey bear. And of course, Samuel Jackson gets his licks in too for a brief bit.

Jurassic Park

Jurassic Park 1993

When I Watched It: 1993
What it taught me: Dinosaurs Are Awesome, Wonder

I don’t think there was a single person on Earth who was ready for this film at the time it was released. I remember hearing, as a child, the tagline for Superman: the Movie (1978): This summer, you’ll believe a man can fly! Jurassic Park didn’t have such a statement attached to it, but this movie made you believe. From the minute you saw your first panorama of dinosaurs marching along a plain, you were hooked. The illusion was so good, you had to believe.

The story covers the life long ambition of an aging scientist to make an actual nature preserve for cloned dinosaurs. After achieving this goal, he wants to share it with the world via a theme park the likes of which the world has never seen: Jurassic Park. Before he can get it up and running though, he needs scientific endorsements and for his insurance lawyers to to vouch for its safety. What could go wrong on an island full of dinosaurs?

Well… everything. And everything does when a cash poor employee at the park decides to steal embryo samples of the dinosaurs on the island by disabling security in the middle of a hurricane. All hell breaks loose as the predatory dinosaurs skip their pens and start eating anyone they can catch.

The idea that this could be done with realism in 1993, that it wouldn’t look fake, was all but unthinkable. Sure, we had some real good emergent effects up to that point. This went beyond those expectations. Way beyond. Watching that T-Rex chase a jeep, seeing it in the sideview mirror with the tiny print reading ‘Objects in mirror are closer than they appear,’ encapsulates the entire film. I loved dinosaurs like any young boy would as a kid, but this launched the obsession to new heights and really would shape my decisions when it came time to choose a school to teach me computer art.

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