It’s the dog days of August here in L.A., and I thought it might be fun to share some of my favorite summer flicks—the ones set in or somehow about the sunny season. Like my St. Patrick’s Day compilation, this only reflects my personal preferences, not the Best Summer Movies Ever. As a bonus, I’ve included each film’s Save the Cat! genre classification.
The ‘Burbs (1989)
Genre: Whydunit (“Personal Whydunit”)
It didn’t get a particularly warm critical or box-office reception upon initial release, but time has bestowed much-deserved cult status upon Joe Dante’s stylish, quotable horror-comedy, starring Tom Hanks, Bruce Dern, and Carrie Fisher. Hanks is a Middle American suburbanite who begins to suspect, over the Memorial Day holiday, that the peculiar new neighbors on the block may in fact be satanic murderers. Dante managed quite a tonal balancing act here in a movie that’s aged remarkably well, and the chemistry and comedic interplay among the cast is aces. It’s the perfect movie to cozy up to with “a couple hundred beers” when, like Hanks’ hapless protagonist, you’ve opted for a holiday-weekend staycation. The ‘Burbs is in some respects about the trouble we get into when we have too much free time on our hands—one of three movies on this list to tackle that subject, and all, oddly enough, co-starring Corey Feldman.
Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995)
Genre: Dude with a Problem (“Law Enforcement Problem”)
Not as good as the first two but infinitely better than the last two, the third Die Hard is proof that bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better, but at least this movie wasn’t made on autopilot: It has an infectious energy and snarky nineties charm all its own. Eschewing the Christmastime setting of the earlier entries, Vengeance is set on the sweaty summer streets of New York, ricocheting Bruce Willis from Harlem to the Upper West Side to Wall Street to Alphabet City and elsewhere—at top speed. My affection for DH3 has less to do with the action or story itself, which is perfectly entertaining if a little overplotted, than it does a personal nostalgic association: When it first came out, I was enrolled in college on the Upper East Side, so Die Hard 3 serves as a snapshot to me of a very particular time and place. It reminds me, in a tactile way, of the sights, sounds, and sensations of summer in the city: when the smoky warmth of a corner hot-dog vendor’s cart momentarily blots out the stink of rotting garbage; when your hair is tousled by the oppressively stale, stifling gust of heated air that wafts up from the sidewalk grating every time a subway car whooshes by below; when the skies split open in late afternoon and flush the sticky atmosphere with a torrential downpour that sibilates on the canopy of green overhead. No one, I imagine, intended for Die Hard with a Vengeance to operate as a tone poem, but that’s nonetheless how I often regard it.
Genre: Monster in the House (“Pure Monster”)
This one’s as de rigueur on the Fourth of July as fireworks and hot dogs. Spielberg’s killer-shark masterpiece was a notoriously miserable production out there on the Atlantic off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard, but that’s precisely what makes it so timeless: If they’d shot it against a blue screen on Falls Lake here at the Universal backlot, as I’m sure the execs would’ve preferred, it would likely be an unwatchably dated relic today. Jaws was, as most know by now, the first summer blockbuster of the modern era, and it’s worth noting how perfectly ordinary its heroes are (Richard Dreyfuss’ blue-blooded Hooper is actually repeatedly mocked by other characters for his dearth of working-class creds), how “low” its stakes are (there are only four casualties, not counting the creepy guy who gets his leg bitten off in the pond), and how off-screen most of its effects, most of its actual scares, are kept. Horror is more effective when the world and the characters that populate it feel credibly believable, and Jaws is a reminder that as long as we’re invested in the plight of those characters, the Fate of the Entire Planet needn’t be in the balance in order to feel the story’s tension; most of the movies that came out this summer either ignored, forgot, or never learned that rudimentary storytelling lesson.
The Lost Boys (1987)
Genre: Monster in the House (“Supra-natural Monster”)
Don’t save this one for Halloween: The Lost Boys is set in the summertime, and is very much about the trouble that seems to find teens during that gulf of time between school years. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Twilight, and The Vampire Diaries all owe a creative debt to Joel Schumacher’s stylish, star-studded horror-comedy: Though teenage vampires are their own cottage industry nowadays, it’s hard to remember that in 1987, they’d never been done before—this was the first. That The Lost Boys, a box-office hit, never spawned a franchise is a bit hard to fathom. (Well, Corey Feldman did reprise his role as vampire hunter Edgar Frog in a pair of straight-to-video sequels two decades later, but the less said about those, the better.) Like Jaws, Lost Boys was actually shot on location where it was meant to take place—Santa Cruz, California—something that lends the picture a verisimilitude that couldn’t have been achieved on a set-dressed studio backlot. This is still one of my all-time favorites; it even inspired me, back in the summer of ’94, to shoot my own homemade sequel. (Side note: In 2008, WildStorm released a four-issue comic-book miniseries called Lost Boys: Reign of Frogs that wasn’t half-bad.)
National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983)
Genre: Golden Fleece (“Buddy Fleece”)
It became a family-friendly franchise later, starting with Christmas Vacation, but the late Harold Ramis’ original is a raunchy, R-rated comedy (scripted by the also-deceased John Hughes, based on his own childhood experiences) about one father’s quest to drive his family from their suburban Chicago home to a Disney-esque theme park in Southern California. The plot is no more complicated than that, but the predicaments that arise along the way are still, over thirty years later, side-splittingly hilarious. Chevy Chase was at the height of his stardom as an overworked, well-meaning dad—“I am not your ordinary, everyday fool”—trying to make up for all the time he’s missed out on with his family over the rest of the year in two overscheduled, overambitious weeks, and growing increasingly frustrated as things fail to go to plan. In a way, the movie’s message is more relevant than ever in 2016 for a generation of misguided young parents who’ve collectively prioritized the experience of their children’s upbringing—with overproduced birthday parties, excessive material possessions, and no limits or parameters in an inexplicable and unattainable bid for some idealized fairytale childhood—ahead of their own sanity.
Dirty Dancing (1987)
Genre: Buddy Love (“Forbidden Love”)
It’s a testament to the emotional power of this movie that we really didn’t understand a lot of what was going on in it (my wife and I, both eleven upon its release, somehow missed the whole abortion subplot!), and yet were nonetheless completely taken with the romance of a selfless girl on the cusp of womanhood and cynical dancer at a Borscht Belt resort in the summer of ’63. Time and experience have only deepened my appreciation for this charming little treasure (I sang its virtues in an analysis of Buddy Love movies for Save the Cat! last year), probably my favorite love story ever. There have been countless attempts to remake it over the years (one of which is finally coming to fruition), but Dirty Dancing, so perfectly cast with Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey, was lightning in a bottle; there’s simply no reproducing its singular magic. It’s one of a kind, and worth revisiting just as it was.
Genre: Institutionalized (“Issue Institution”)
There’s no explaining, really, how a short Christmas story that originally appeared in The New York Times Op-Ed became a feature-length independent movie set against the backdrop of a sweltering Brooklyn summer—you just have to see it for yourself to understand. Harvey Keitel plays the manager of a Park Slope cigar shop where different lives and different stories intersect—that’s about the best I can offer by way of a plot summary. It’s a story about storytelling, but it isn’t for all tastes: It’s casually paced and (purposely) meandering. But it resonates with me—always has—probably because I spent so much time in the mid-nineties working the counter of mom-and-pop retail shops in the Bronx, and I appreciate the contribution those local institutions make to the character of a neighborhood. And, like Die Hard with a Vengeance—certainly the first and only time these two films have been compared—it captures a feeling of summer in New York that I almost never get to experience anymore here in seasonless, always-the-same Los Angeles. It occurs to me now, actually, that with the sole exception of The ‘Burbs (filmed on the Universal cul-de-sac prominently featured in Desperate Housewives), every movie on this list was shot, at least in part, on location where its story is set, and I suppose I value an authentic sense of place and time in my fiction, something I’ve strived to achieve in my forthcoming novel, Escape from Rikers Island.
Stand by Me (1986)
Genre: Golden Fleece (“Buddy Fleece”)
Corey Feldman strikes again, as one of four young friends who set out on Labor Day weekend of 1959 across rural Oregon to find the dead body of a missing boy. Over the course of their adventure, they wrestle with a looming sense of separation anxiety (they’re headed into the larger world of junior high school), and confront the loss of innocence that comes from the realization—and acceptance—that parents and authority figures sometimes (often) let us down. This is, quite simply, the finest artistic expression of boyhood friendship I’ve ever encountered (and a wonderful, remarkably faithful adaptation of Stephen King’s novella The Body), celebrating its thirtieth anniversary this summer as a rightfully regarded classic. I first watched the film in the summer of ’88, when I, like the protagonists, was twelve years old, and saw myself and all of my friends in Gordie, Chris, Teddy, and Vern. All these years later, it still moves me to tears.
Weekend at Bernie’s (1989)
Genre: Dude with a Problem (“Domestic Problem”)
If I need a pick-me-up after Stand by Me, I reach for this other Labor Day “classic,” a movie so committed to its flagrantly idiotic “unwanted corpse” premise that you have to admire its conviction. Andrew McCarthy and Jonathan Silverman play, in typical eighties fashion, mismatched pals (the former’s a slacker slob, the latter an uptight goody-two-shoes) who arrive at the Long Island summer home of their sleazy boss, Bernie Lomax, only to discover he’s DOA! Through a series of comedic misunderstandings, they are forced to make it appear as though he is still alive and kicking in order to fool the contract killer Bernie had hired to rub them out. As patently absurd as the whole thing is, it got even crazier: Bernie was resurrected as a zombie in a 1993 sequel!
So if, like me—and evidently the rest of the movie-going public—you’ve been avoiding the theaters this summer, you could do worse than cool off in the A/C with one of the above. As a kid, there was nothing quite like spending my vacation running around the streets of the Bronx, then coming home each evening to pizza and Pepsi and the latest VHS rental. Those endless summer days are now a thing of the past, but each of these films is a welcome reminder of their particular seasonal pleasures.