The summer movie season of 1992 opened under a cloud; a dark cloud from the still-smouldering buildings that had burned to the ground during the LA riots in April. Racial tension after the disastrous acquittal of Rodney King’s uniformed attackers had reached an all-time high and Hollywood appealed for calm.
Thus, in a touchingly bold demonstration of selfless generosity, Walter Hill’s unremarkable urban thriller, The Looters, was hastily withdrawn and held back until Christmas, re-christened Trespass (memorably starring two Bills – Paxton and Sadler – and a pair of Ices – T and Cube). Elsewhere, it was business as usual.
Alien 3, for example strayed dangerously far from the template set down by the first two classics. Bravely, it has to be said, David Fincher tried to create a quasi-religious epic, following Scott’s horror movie and Cameron’s war film. Latterly, Fincher’s frustrations and behind-the-scenes interferences became legendary, but audiences didn’t click with his compromised vision and it became the first in a long line of Alien movies to fall a bit flat.
Another major sequel, Honey, I Blew Up The Baby was in fact the complete opposite of 1989’s Honey, I Shrunk The Kids, culminating in the spectacle of a 99 foot toddler stomping through Las Vegas. It was directed without enthusiasm by Grease director Randal Kleiser, reminding audiences once again why no one remembers who directed Grease.
It wasn’t just sequels that dared to be different. One of the strangest mainstream offerings of the year was Robert Zemeckis’s black comedy, Death Becomes Her, which might have been a delicious satire on America’s vain obsession with cosmetic surgery if only Bruce Willis had stopped shouting at everyone like he was trying to prevent a plane crash.
Back in the ‘90s, much more so than today, comedies were a vital part of the summer success story – an inexpensive sop for the grown-ups while their teenage kids watched things explode in Screen 7. There were high hopes for Steve Martin and Goldie Hawn’s Housesitter, which was only a medium-sized hit, despite the bit where Steve Martin sings ‘Tura Lura Lura’ to his dad, and the other bit when his falls over his couch.
Boomerang was a bigger hit and restored some credibility to Eddie Murphy’s career after the crippling one-two punches of Harlem Nights and Another 48 Hours. It was also responsible for one of the great ironic ‘First Dance At a Wedding’ songs, Boys II Men’s The End of The Road.
Nicolas Cage embarked on a three year long career as a romantic comedy star with the rather wonderful Honeymoon in Vegas, famed for its skydiving Elvis finale. Tom Hanks and his Big director Penny Marshall reteamed to great success with wartime baseball comedy A League of Their Own, which also saw Geena Davis giving a star performance and Madonna giving a bearable one. “There’s no crying in baseball!!!” was probably the most quoted line of the summer.
As with City Slickers in 1991, comedy provided the biggest sleeper hit of the summer: Sister Act, with Whoopi Goldberg excelling as a murder witness hiding out in a convent. As with City Slickers, an unwise sequel was hastily made and hastily forgotten. The original though, was the sixth biggest film of the year and is still going strong as a west-end show to this day.
It wasn’t just the many and varied comic tastes of adults that were appeased; semi-literate young people were also provided for by Encino Man (or California Man as we knew it, since we don’t know where Encino is. It’s in California). Noted for Brendan Fraser’s first stab at the big time, this grungy caveman caper will be of interest to young contemporary archeologists keen to investigate who or what Pauly Shore was.
Teenagers were also palmed off with a silly-sounding comedy called Buffy The Vampire Slayer, written by first-time screenwriter Joss Whedon. Starring Kristy Swanson as the eponymous heroine, but marketed as a vehicle for Beverly Hills 90210 heart-throb Luke Perry, the producers had hoped for a chunk of the Bill & Ted audience that Encino Man hadn’t swallowed up. Sadly, they had to make do with a long-running spin-off television show regularly cited as one of the greatest ever made. Gnarly.
The stalking killer thriller phenomenon that started with The Silence of The Lambs and Cape Fear echoed into 1992 with solid hits like Unlawful Entry and Single White Female. Even Patriot Games – a sort-of sequel to The Hunt For Red October with Harrison Ford rebooting Alec Baldwin’s Jack Ryan – for all its CIA espionage and partial understanding of “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland, was basically a slasher movie, with Sean Bean doing to Harrison Ford what Robert De Niro had done to Nick Nolte the year before. (Sean Bean dies, obviously).
Crimes against the Emerald Isle weren’t restricted to the gratuitous amounts of Clannad in Patriot Games. Tom Cruise’s Irish accent in Ron Howard’s Far and Away was the benchmark for all bad Irish accents until Brad Pitt graciously took the relay baton in The Devil’s Own. The film, shot in glorious 70mm was the biggest risk of the summer and proved to be the dampest squib, considering the star power of Cruise and (then-wife) Nicole Kidman. Despite looking ravishing, the script had all the depth of a bottle-cap. It desperately wanted to be a timeless classic in the David Lean tradition but held up against Unforgiven, which was released in August, Far & Away was shown up as the glorified CBBC TV special it was.
Unforgiven came out of nowhere. Clint Eastwood’s previous movie, The Rookie, was somehow even worse than 1989’s Pink Cadillac. However, he’d been sitting on David Webb Peoples’ script for years until he was finally old enough to play William Munny. An extraordinary, mature and masterful critique of Western mythology, Unforgiven was hailed as Eastwood’s best work from the get-go, took the summer’s number five spot and would later win a handful of Oscars, including Pest Picture.
So who was the box office champion of Summer ’92? Well, that question was never in any doubt. Tim Burton’s Batman was the cultural phenomenon of 1989, redefining the parameters of box office limitations and merchandise licensing in a way not seen since Star Wars. Speculation as to who Batman would fight next and who would play him/her began immediately. Dustin Hoffman was touted to play The Penguin and Annette Bening was actually cast as Catwoman, before pregnancy forced her to drop out.
On the 19th of June, all was revealed when Batman Returns opened to a spectacular $45m weekend, $5m more than the original. Michael Keaton returned as The Caped Crusader (having split up with the creditably tight-lipped Vicki Vale), while not one but three villains put up their dukes. Danny DeVito played the Penguin as a deformed, subterranean leader of a gang of circus act drop-outs. Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman (perhaps her signature role) was transformed from a clumsy secretary into a vengeful whip-wielding dominatrix. Christopher Walken borrowed ‘Doc’ Emmett Brown’s hair to play new villain, Max Shreck.
Despite the enormous opening weekend, things took a downward turn almost immediately. Audiences expecting more of the same were treated to a dark, nose-bitingly violent combination of German Expressionism, kinky S&M and oversized rubber ducks. The box office the following week dropped by 40%, and there was further controversy when McDonalds had to deal with the ire of horrified parents across America, ‘tricked’ by their Batman Returns Happy Meals into taking their kids to watch Burton’s deranged fairy tale, pussy jokes et al.
The backlash (against what is now considered a unique high-water mark in the superhero genre), meant that Batman Returns wound up making $100m less than its predecessor and it placed third for the year, behind Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, a film so determined to give its audience a familiar experience that it simply changed the first film’s screen directions from INT. KEVIN’S HOUSE – NIGHT to EXT. NEW YORK – NIGHT and reshot the entire script. (The box office crown for the year was taken eventually by Disney’s Aladdin.)
Warner Bros. took evasive action, hiring Joel Schumacher to sweeten the mix, which would help to restore Batman’s fortunes in 1995, before everything, literally absolutely everything went wrong in 1997 and the world had to wait for Christopher Nolan to finish attending UCL, become a director and save the Dark Knight from the resultant ignominy.
Hollywood was given a crash course in the perils of straying too far from a winning formula in the summer of ’92. Sadly, for a while at least, it learned its lesson.