Why 1984 was one of the most fascinating years for blockbusters

From Gremlins and Indiana Jones to Prince and PG13, 1984 was the year that changed blockbuster cinema.

1984 was a unique year for cinema fans. (Yahoo UK: Illustration by LukeeThornhill)
1984 was a unique year for cinema fans. (Yahoo UK: Illustration by LukeeThornhill)

There’s a case to be made that 1984 is the best year in movie history for iconic mainstream blockbusters (even if some of them were sleepers at the time). Consider the evidence: Ghostbusters, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Gremlins, Romancing the Stone, The Karate Kid, Beverly Hills Cop, The Terminator, Splash, Footloose, the first Police Academy. It’s hard to think of a more stellar annual line-up (though we expect people will in the comments).

It was the birth of the multiplex, although the UK’s first, The Point in Milton Keynes, wouldn’t follow until the following year, meaning that studio films were on more screens more of the time.

And the above is not counting such seminal masterpieces as Amadeus, which would sweep the Oscars the following year, Robert Redford smashing a baseball into the heavens to Randy Newman’s famous score in The Natural, or This is Spinal Tap changing the face of comedy.

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It wasn’t all a hit factory though. The much-hyped Bolero, starring Bo Derek, was a softcore flop. Meanwhile, bizarre action musical Streets of Fire, originally to feature Tom Cruise and Daryl Hannah but settling instead for newcomer Michael Paré and (the brilliant) Diane Lane, confused everyone and sunk without trace. The latter has since been critically re-evaluated and is now considered something of a cult classic.

THE KARATE KID, Pat Morita, Ralph Macchio, 1984. ©Columbia Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection
Pat Morita and Ralph Maccio in 1984's The Karate Kid. (Columbia Pictures/Everett Collection)

The 1984 summer movie season, however, was a fun one for British audiences. They had to wait for Gremlins and Ghostbusters which opened in America in June but not until December in the UK, while Axel Foley wouldn’t reach UK shores until January 1985.

But crane kicks were practised across the land thanks to Daniel LaRusso and everyone fell in love with a mermaid when Splash arrived at the end of June.

USA. Tom Hanks and Daryl Hannah  in a scene from ©Buena Vista Pictures film: Splash (1984). Plot: A young man is reunited with a mermaid who saved him from drowning as a boy. He falls in love with her, not knowing who or what she is.  Ref: LMK110-J6577-110620 Supplied by LMKMEDIA. Editorial Only. Landmark Media is not the copyright owner of these Film or TV stills but provides a service only for recognised Media outlets. pictures@lmkmedia.com
Daryl Hannah and Tom Hanks lit up the screen in 1984's mermaid romcom Splash. (Alamy)

Pathetic primary school rapping and impromptu pop-and-lock breakdance sessions hit playgrounds as pioneering films like Breakin’ and Beat Street started to permeate the zeitgeist and bring hip-hop culture to the masses.

Meanwhile, everyone was trying to do funny voices because of Michael Winslow in May’s Police Academy and this writer was one of those trying to figure out how to create a mudslide like the one Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner (or their stunt doubles anyway) go down in Romancing the Stone, which capped the summer with its release on 31 August.

The Gremlins pushed the censors to the limits in Joe Dante's 1984 classic. (Alamy)
The Gremlins pushed the censors to the limits in Joe Dante's 1984 classic. (Alamy)

Not all the big movie news of 1984 happened on-screen. The funny thing about age ratings, or certificates, is that they’re intended for parents so they know whether a movie is suitable for their kids. But more often than not, it’s so those children can crow about how they’ve snuck into an grown-up film that’s got more sex or violence than they’re supposed to see.

Gremlins being minced in a blender, library ghosts and a man pulling a man’s heart out of his chest while he was still alive were three of the scenes which pushed the envelope of the PG certificate in 1984. This boundary-skirting frequently divided critics, some of whom thought the crossover into horror had gone a step too far. It also made the Hollywood higher-ups think there needed to be a rating in between parental guidance and R (for Restricted).

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Steven Spielberg was on board, with the Motion Picture Assocation (MPAA) and its president Jack Valenti keen to introduce a certification which “leaps beyond the boundaries of the PG rating”.

Harrison Ford with Steven Spielberg on the set of 1984's Temple of Doom. Spielberg later admitted he was 'in a dark place' while making the second Indiana Jones film. (Alamy)
Harrison Ford with Steven Spielberg on the set of 1984's Temple of Doom. Spielberg later admitted he was 'in a dark place' while making the second Indiana Jones film. (Alamy)

“I remember calling Jack Valenti and suggesting to him that we need a rating between R and PG, because so many films were falling into a netherworld, you know, of unfairness,” Spielberg said. “Unfair that certain kids were exposed to Jaws, but also unfair that certain films were restricted, that kids who were 13, 14, 15 should be allowed to see.”

Of course it had many issues. For one, kids could still buy a ticket to a PG-13, which would guarantee a bit more than the usual violence, a dash of sex, or maybe a f-bomb. And it didn’t take off in the UK, which avoided the middle ground between parental guidance and a 15 until the 12 arrived in 1989. The first movie to get a PG-13 was Red Dawn later in 1984.

1984's Red Dawn, about a group of teenage guerillas in occupied America, featured Patrick Swayze, Charlie Sheen, and Lea Thompson amongst its cast. (Alamy)

The male cast of Red Dawn — Patrick Swayze, C Thomas Howell and Charlie Sheen — certainly resembled that of Francis Ford’s Coppola’s 1983 youth movie duet of The Outsiders and Rumble Fish, while Fast Times at Ridgmont High had shown what a cast of young people could do when treated with respect a couple of years previously, but it was the release of Sixteen Candles on 14 September that truly birthed the concept of the Brat Pack, mainly thanks to the participation of writer/director John Hughes in his helming debut and his two muses, Molly Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall.

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The notoriously prolific Hughes had already written the script for The Breakfast Club when Sixteen Candles started shooting, but execs felt it was better to start with the more narratively conventional teencom about a girl whose distracted parents forget her 16th birthday.

Anthony Michael Hall and Molly Ringwald in 1984's Sixteen Candles. (Universal Pictures/Everett Collection)
Anthony Michael Hall and Molly Ringwald in 1984's Sixteen Candles. (Universal Pictures/Everett Collection)

The casual misogyny and cringeworthy racism of character Long Duk Dong makes it look incredibly dated now, but Sixteen Candles was a kind of mini-revolution in cinematic terms. For one, it established the John Hughes Cinematic Universe that would go on to spawn Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and many more. But it also codified the centrality of teen-hood and how their worldview was shaping the Eighties, an idea to which the Hughes was key.

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As actress Carlin Glynn, who played Ringwald’s mother in the film, told author Susannah Gora, “He connected with those kids like he was one of them. He was very in tune with what kids needed, like the boom box blaring in the vehicle taking you to the set at 4am. He understood that’s what the kids wanted. He was just totally on their level, totally ‘got’ them.”

Prince starred in 1984's Purple Rain. (Warner Bros./Alamy)
Prince starred in 1984's Purple Rain. (Warner Bros./Alamy)

Another film that emerged on the last day of August 1984, like some glittery, weird, small thing was Purple Rain, which would go on to be one of the biggest smashes of the year. It would score Razzies for some of its performances, and an Oscar and Brit Award for its tunes.

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Prince’s debut movie predated modern multi-platform-style releases such as Beyoncé’s Lemonade by decades and has left a huge mark. He’s always been magnetic onstage, but Prince Rogers Nelson is also a canny screen actor (see: New Girl for a weird example) and while Purple Rain is a kind of concert film with the story about a wrong-side-the-tracks hero called The Kid who is saved through music tacked on, it’s very watchable.

“The screen story was created independently of my knowledge of Prince,” debut director Albert Magnoli told UPI at the time. “I didn't know anything about Prince's personal life at all.”

The singer had demanded he get a film to create and star in as part of a new record deal and it was left to Magnoli to come up with something. Costing $7 million, the accompanying album was made simultaneously, with his bandmates and entourage rounding out the cast.

Fans attend an event at Mann's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, California, on July 26, 1984. (Photo by Pierre-Gilles Vidoli/WWD/Penske Media via Getty Images)
Prince fans lined the streets for the Hollywood premiere of Purple Rain in July, 1984. (Pierre-Gilles Vidoli/WWD/Penske Media via Getty Images)

Prince had asked Stevie Nicks to write the lyrics for the title track, but she benevolently refused and so the legendary song was built in a six-hour jam session.

“The approach was always to create a very strong storyline and let the music counterpoint that, as opposed to emphasising music and maybe there's a story when you get offstage,” explained Magnoli.

“I wanted to make sure that if I was onstage there was a really good reason to be there. We wanted to make a movie first.”