Neil’s Underrated ’85 Picks

Stone Pillow

US Release: November 1985

Lucille Ball had been in over 40 movies before her first television appearance, but it’s TV that really made her a star. So it’s fitting that her final movie role would be this made-for-TV drama in which she plays Flora, a jaded, feisty, no-nonsense homeless woman who knows all the tricks needed to survive the New York City streets. Daphne Zuniga is Carrie, a naive, fresh-out-of-college girl struggling in her job at a homeless shelter. While out on a fact-finding mission to try to better understand the homeless, Carrie encounters Flora just in time for both of them to get mugged. Mistaking her for a runaway, Flora grudgingly takes Carrie under her wing to gives her a first-hand look at what it’s like to live on the streets.

Stone Pillow is a far cry from the comedy roles that made her famous, and her trademark red is completely gray, but you can’t help but recognize Ball’s voice as she completely owns this movie. It’s a captivating drama that manages to be an effective social commentary without feeling awkward or heavy-handed. Zuniga does a fine job in her supporting role that thankfully takes a back seat to Lucy’s lead, and I was pleasantly surprised to see Mike Starr make an uncredited appearance.find an uncredited appearance from Mike Starr.

Poison Ivy

US Release: February 1985

Summer camp movies are one of mankind’s greatest inventions, right up there with electricity and the wheel. And Poison Ivy has to be one of the best summer camp movies ever made. It’s not that there’s anything all that unusual or innovative about it, but it’s just done really wellThere’s not really anything all that unusual about it, but it’s just done really well. There are the usual camper stereotypes, like the athlete, the fat kid, the nerd, the smoothfast-talking con manartist, and the runaway, but there’s more depth to their characters than you might find in one of the lesser movies. Michael J. Fox (probably mostly known for Family Ties at this point, since Back to the Future and Teen Wolf wouldn’t hit theaters for another few months) is the big star, as noted by his appearing no fewer than four times on the VHS cover art, but Nancy McKeon (The Facts of Life) has the more nuanced role as the assistant nurse who is attractive and draws the attention of many of males of varying ages but isn’t merely is much more than a sex symbol. On the other hand, Adam Baldwin’s “head counselor with a stick up his ass” role does seem pretty one-dimensional, and Robert Klein’s camp director gives a few enthusiastic speeches but is otherwise pretty insignificant. Despite a fairly prominent credit on the VHS cover, Jason Bateman is nowhere to be found in the movie.

At times, Poison Ivy feels a lot like a younger and tamer version of Revenge of the Nerds. Many of the campers are misfits but they mesh well together, and the camp’s big “color wars” competition a lot in common with the Greek Games. It also reminds me of the 1990 “who’s who of network television” movie Camp Cucamonga, which makes sense because Bennett Tramer wrote them both (along with a fair amount of Saved by the Bell). Poison Ivy is probably familiar because it doesn’t do much that hadn’t been done before, but it does it well and with a great dose of nostalgia to boot.

Heavenly Bodies

US Release: February 1985

Jane Fonda’s early 1980s workout videos made aerobics popular in the home, but it didn’t get much big-screen attention until Heavenly Bodies. It features Cynthia Dale as Samantha, who manages to escape her boring day job and join up with friends KC and Patty to turn a dilapidated warehouse into an aerobics studio. Sam’s upbeat attitude and nonstop energy help to quickly grow the membership, and she even signs a deal with the local pro football team to whip their players into shape (and gets a love interest in the process). Things really take off when Samantha lands a gig hosting an early-morning workout show on TV, but that doesn’t sit well with Debbie, the girlfriend of a rival gym owner who thought she had the TV show locked up. When Debbie convinces an investor to buy the Heavenly Bodies building and terminate their lease, Samantha does a little Network-style rant on her show and challenges the other gym to a marathon aerobics competition for the building.

In defiance of all known laws of mathematics, this movie is approximately 150% montage. There are three separate montages (Samantha at her old job, fixing up the building, and doing aerobics with ever-increasing class sizes) before we encounter a scene with any substantial dialogue. You won’t find any needless exposition here, and it’s practically a master class in “show don’t tell” filmmaking. It’s cheesy at times, motivations aren’t always clear, and it’s unlikely to inspire anyone to get off their butt and start exercising, but it is a movie that’s fun to watch and even stands up well under repeat viewings.

The Party Animal

US Release: January 1985

More than a decade before VH-1 ran its Where Are They Now? series, The Party Animal somehow managed to spoof it. It’s a documentary-style look back at the college career of Pondo Sinatra, a guy with only sex on the brain but thus far a complete lack of experience. His experienced roommate Studly agrees to help him, but his efforts (like a wardrobe makeover and an utterly ridiculous Cyrano de Bergerac sequence) just don’t seem to pan out. Even Studly’s mentor Elbow can’t seem to get him over the hump. It’s only when a professor makes a reference to an aphrodisiac in a lecture that Pondo’s luck begins to change.

There is nothing subtle about this movie. It’s more about quantity than quality, and while some of the gags miss the mark badly (like an uncomfortably racist scene, or a drug sequence that goes on too long without much payoff), a lot of them work. It’s not as classy as your higher-brow sex comedies like Porky’s or The Last American Virgin, but it’s also willing to venture into territory that other movies wouldn’t dream of touching (e.g., a scene in a sex shop where Pondo browses while a couple of employees have a conversation on arms reduction in the voice of Marlon Brando). The premise may have been done to death, but there’s stuff in The Party Animal you won’t find anywhere else.

The Perils of Gwendoline in the Land of the Yik Yak

US Release: January 1985

In one of the most ridiculous of the Indiana Jones clones, Tawny Kitaen plays the titular Gwendoline. She’s looking for her father, who never came back from a mission to find a rare butterfly. For some reason, she latches onto a guy named Willard (who has about as much charm and machismo as you’d expect from someone with that name) and finagles him into being her guide on a mission to find out what happened. And despite learning almost immediately that her father is dead, they set off into dangerous territory to try to figure out exactly what happened and to find that elusive butterfly.

This is really just a boob delivery mechanism masquerading as an action-adventure film, and it accomplishes that quite effectively if not brilliantly. A jungle storm necessitates disrobing to fashion a means of capturing the rainwater. A cold night spent tied up by superstitious natives requires what basically amounts to phone sex in order to keep warm. And the final act takes place in a no-boys-allowed hidden city that is kind of a sexy Coliseum of topless chariot racing and hand-to-hand combat. This isn’t the place to look for classy, edge-of-your-seat excitement, but few movies deliver trashy over-the-top absurdity as well as this one.