The logo of Steven Spielberg’s Amblin production company adorned many favourites from the 80s and 90s, including some that don’t get enough recognition today.
Spoilers for The Goonies and Batteries Not Included lie ahead.
The world’s most famous filmmaker was torn. Maligned by some as ‘merely’ a storyteller, Steven Spielberg wanted to make important, impactful films of lasting worth, but the path that had led him to this pinnacle was infused with his love of tales of the fantastic. Dabbling in his own TV show or paying homage in Twilight Zone: The Movie wasn’t enough – he needed a way to sustain his childhood love of tall tales set in the mundane suburban lives of his ‘ordinary joes’.
After E.T., Spielberg needed a place to house his cinematic fantasies, and Amblin Studios was the result.
Amblin’s 80s output was often directed by Spielberg’s peers or those with whom he had previously worked who were looking to get behind a camera. The Goonies led the way, with a story from Spielberg but directed by Richard Donner, whose mastery of verisimilitude in Superman had exemplified the studio’s delicate tonal balance. Its final scene encapsulates this, in which the rescued children try to describe what has just happened, babbling to their confused and sceptical parents with incoherent conviction, only for everyone to then be immediately confronted with the impossible truth.
The Goonies embodies the essence of Amblin: wholehearted, innocent, wide-eyed and heartfelt storytelling concerning the most ordinary people in the most extraordinary of situations. In Amblin, Spielberg built himself a den and invited his friends to come over and play in it, leading to an era of uncompromising fantasy: films which are steeped in wonder, always comfortable with who they are, no matter how fantastic.
Other studios followed this lead, but after The Rocketeer failed to hit, this decade of magnificent adventure faded from fashion. Uncynical wholeheartedness had stopped selling, but modern filmmakers who loved Amblin are now being increasingly granted a similar trust.
Ready Player One exuded these qualities, and perhaps that film’s cameo appearance of The Iron Giant (the most Amblin of non-Amblin films) was Spielberg repaying these compliments. Ready Player One showed that, after multiple Oscars and an indelible legacy, Spielberg still can’t resist playing with those childhood toys, right into his 70s. It is his cinematic DNA.
Here, then, is a trio of often forgotten films from Amblin’s golden age, each of which encapsulate the unassuming adventurous excellence of that studio’s output, and whose impact has lasted beyond their box office.
Young Sherlock Holmes
“You would let trouble ruin an opportunity for adventure?”
A shrouded spectre stalks a festively Victorian London, poisoning a plump gent who subsequently hallucinates his roast turkey clawing and pecking at his hands and eyes. Fleeing to a home where metallic, smothering snakes erupt from his walls, he leaps to his death.
Inanimate household objects trying to kill you was a familiar 80s convention (Poltergeist, Ghostbusters), but the audacious horror of this opening wasn’t aiming for mere creepiness, but rather a full, unfiltered terror that suddenly cuts to jaunty opening credits and the voice of Paddington Bear. A bold, surprising and undervalued film, director Barry Levinson built a story that was dismissed for the very thing that made it exceptional: tonal shifts between the terrifyingly macabre and the reassuringly thrilling.
The best children’s fiction understands that a child’s world is often one of absolutes that swiftly veer from one extreme to the other, and gentle comedy rubs against nightmarish imagery throughout this family adventure.
Nobody understood the thematic resonances of adolescence better than Amblin and, as with The Goonies, this film features children forced to engage in a frightening adult arena, now artfully conveyed across a murky London replete with smoke, snow and shadows.
The three leads form a familiar narrative triptych (heart, soul, brain) and are well cast, mostly for the embodiment of their roles. A gangly, beagle-eyed Nicholas Rowe brings a measured, purposeful stoop to this heroic Holmes, ultimately forged in flames against tragic sacrifice to permanently shelve the life he yearned for and become the hero we recognise. Alan Cox’s Watson is consistently amusing as a reluctant, pouting Watson (his delivery of the line: “Do you have any soup?” is comedic perfection), whilst Ward’s quiet luminescence elevates her 80s supporting role.
Already resonant, the film’s legacy is clear: we encounter bumbling teachers, sonorous candlelit school halls, a snooty, albino bully, villains hiding in plain sight, and even a two hour running time with a breathless action finale and explanatory coda: Young Sherlock shares so much DNA with Harry Potter that I can’t help but wonder if a 20-year-old J.K. Rowling was inspired by it (just inspired, for any lawyers reading – you can put your legal pads away).
If so, this circle would be completed when screenwriter Chris Columbus was invited to craft the Potterverse, a franchise that would be markedly different without a film unfairly dismissed as an SFX-driven Temple Of Doom knockoﬀ.
As with Back To The Future, Amblin recognised the value of a huge orchestral score, whilst the special effects (including very early CGI) remain flawless to the modern eye, as befits the birth of what would become Pixar. One final possible influence may have been on modern Marvel: hearing a playground whisper to fast forward the end credits on a rented VHS copy, only to discover a hidden secret lurking at the end, was an unknown thrill back in the 80s.
*Batteries Not Included
“This is the 80s! Nobody likes reality anymore!”
Greenlighted presumably in the wake of Cocoon’s success, director Matthew Robbins’ film is arguably even more overlooked than his grimly mesmerising Dragonslayer.
Having worked with Spielberg on The Sugarland Express and Close Encounters, Robbins’ film is a paean to gentleness, boosted by a pair of twinkling Hollywood legends and holding up as an honest, sad and sweet-natured film about families, for families. As bulldozers circle a lone, antiquated New York block, residents are bullied by thugs both corporate and local as a disinterested city waits for them to fade. As hope leaves, help arrives from the least likely of sources, and, as with the best of Amblin, the desperately real is fused to the preposterously fantastical.
The film has no interest in explaining from where their salvation comes, and one chuckles at the idea of a modern viewer casually chancing across the film unaware of this enormous left turn.
Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy lead a diverse cast, and the film’s gaze at their pain at having “missed the sunset” is unflinching. Steadily losing his wife to senility, Cronyn daily plays along with discussions of their son, the death of whom only he can now remember.
The moment when he finally acquiesces to her fantasy, only for that to puncture her protective delusion, is as devastatingly played as it is conceived; the film is almost brazenly earnest in the face of its considerable conceits.
Also outstanding is Michael Carmine, lost to AIDS shortly after this performance. He builds what in many other 80s films would have been a one-dimensional thug into an unexpectedly sympathetic man desperate to better himself using the only skills he has ever known to have any value. There is a funny gag when he gets zapped by the visitors, but the film gives space to his subsequent humiliation and isolation, using it to escalate both his desperation and the stakes of the narrative.
Robbins moved back into writing after the film failed to hit, writing for Guillermo del Toro to this day. Seeing the name of Brad Bird on the list of writers is striking, and many Pixar films have also invoked this film’s sense of wonder juxtaposed with unwavering emotional heft.
The most obvious example is Up, which covers correspondingly melancholic themes of age and loss, and whose solution to corporate eviction is even more fantastical. With its glorious final shot and wholehearted conceit that all bullies will eventually wilt in the face of kindness, this is a film which has aged as gracefully as its stars.
A clean-cut professional moves his young family from the big city to a backwater town, only to find that the forces of nature are trimming the natural population and nobody seems to be listening. Frank Marshall may have looked to Jaws to provide his framework, but Gremlins is also a big influence, both structurally and in the gleeful, gloopy final act.
Gorgeously shot with shadowy purple hues, Arachnophobia is primarily a bloodless horror film, although much of its DNA has since been seen elsewhere: Peter Hyams used precisely the same premise years later in his enjoyably gruesome romp The Relic, whilst Marshall himself would reuse the basic opening five years later in Congo, only then with an upgraded score and an even more idiosyncratic performance from a pantomime Brit.
After the Amazonian prologue, the backdrop thereafter is pure Amblin: blue skies, picket fences and small-town mentalities. Marshall mines the comedic conflict of an ordinary America besieged by malevolent monsters with a notably droll tone, including cutting from the leads snuggling under the covers to the spiders doing precisely the same and a (consciously) indulgent John Goodman performance. Julian Sands, meanwhile, seems to have been dared to see which of his many deliveries of the word “incredible” can be the most deadpan.
Directing his first feature, Frank Marshall’s astonishing production CV meant that he was no stranger to a film set and he had learned how to craft such a story from the very best. There are, however, moments of true flair, including a scene where two innocent young girls play and tease each other, unaware of vertically framed looming dangers.
Disorientingly shot, edited against creepy dolls and set to their singing of ‘Itsy Bitsy Spider’, Marshall encapsulates his whole film in this short scene, mastering thematic content that the most recent Jurassic Park strived for across its entire running time. The film revels in its own schlockiness, preying on the dread that lurking under your bed, behind your toilet, inside your lampshade, above your shower or, in one spectacular case, up someone’s nose are creepy crawlies that are specifically out to get you.
Marshall teases his audience with a school of red herrings to squeeze every moment of playful horror, with the result a thrilling, unnerving and funny scare. Jeff Daniels elegantly moves through the gears, from perturbed twitchiness to shrieking revulsion as he is forced to relive his own childhood nightmare in a finale that cheekily grabs the film’s slight subtext of yuppie America failing to mesh with the past, and runs with it by having Daniels protect his family from the ravages of nature armed with a shovel and a nail gun. He is even forced to make the ultimate sacrifice along the way, by destroying his luxury wine collection.
You can hear more about Arachnophobia in our podcast episode on the film, here.
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