It’s a completely common craze when you’re a youngster to indulge yourself in habitual viewings of specific movies. There were several dozen movies that I took particularly profound pleasure in watching on videocassette regularly as I grew up in that illustrious decade that we’ve come to know as “The ‘80s.” Firewalker, The Living Daylights, Jaws: The Revenge; there were many of them.
One such popular movie was a goofy “teen” comedy starring some up-and-coming guy named John Cusack called Better Off Dead… (the actual onscreen title card includes that unwanted and unnecessary ellipsis, so don‘t complain to me), and, after only one viewing with my older brother, I all-but-supported the investment that the local video store owner fronted for the Key Video VHS release of the movie by renting it almost every day.
Seriously, I did. I wasn’t the only one in the world to turn Better Off Dead… into some sort of ceremony. To this day, one can shout out “Two dollars!” in a crowded room and there’s a pretty good chance they’ll find a fellow fan of the flick. It’s a cult thing, I guess. But I imagine nobody ever really had the slightest inkling that this one would have become such a cult classic.
The story involves on a dejected lovesick high school lad by the name o’ Lane (John Cusack), who pines over the recent breakup with his now ex-girlfriend, Beth (Amanda Wyss). When he’s not contemplating committing suicide, he’s hanging out with a weird assortment of friends and family: Curtis “Booger” Armstrong as his wacky drug-seeking pal; David Ogden Stiers as his out-of-touch father, Kim Darby as Lane’s even further out-of-touch mother and Scooter Stevens as his silent creepy-genius of a little brother.
While it sounds all-too-reminiscent of your average, run-of-the-mill ‘80s teen flick fare, Better Off Dead… has a distinctive advantage that makes it stand out from its cinematic cousins — mainly the surreal, often bizarre moments that writer/director Savage Steve Holland intertwines into his thoroughly memorable, offbeat tale. There’s a pair of Japanese brothers who learned English from watching Howard Cosell, who are always challenging Lane to a drag race; a psychotic paperboy who is extremely determined to collect his two-dollars; and the weird, shy, lovesick fat kid across the street (Dan Schneider) who’s equally-strange mother (Laura Waterbury) is determined to set her son up with their new foreign exchange student from France (Diane Franklin, who was only a year away from achieving greatness in TerrorVision).