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).
It’d be pretty ballsy on anyone’s part to argue that it’s Savage Steve Holland’s unique brand of humor that makes Better Off Dead… so outstanding. Some of us — the fans — have no problem rolling right along with the film’s incongruousness, and those of us who should probably be on some sort of medication find the outlandish behavior of the film to be quite normal.
Sadly, the general public and critics alike never saw Savage Steve’s method of moviemaking to be as enjoyable: both Better Off Dead… and it’s unofficial “follow-up” feature, 1986’s One Crazy Summer, failed to make much of an impression with theatergoers (though, ironically enough, Holland still managed to mold a career for himself by writing and directing off the wall television shows aimed at the younger generation). As such, the nonappearance of Savage Steve Holland’s participation in this long-awaited High-Def issuing of Better Off Dead… is hardly surprising.
Yup, that’s right: CBS/Paramount’s Blu-ray release of Better Off Dead… is a barebones affair. The cult moviemaker doesn’t appear on the disc’s roster of special features in any way, shape or form — and there’s nary a featurette or commentary in sight. As a matter of fact, the only extra on-hand here is the original theatrical trailer. The sigh.
Moving onto the disc’s specs: the video presentation brings out the best the film ever had to offer (a bright color scheme, some fine detail), but it also carries its share of battle scars in the guise of some pale faces and grain. Sound-wise, there’s a choice between a new English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix and an English Stereo option that is more on par with the film’s original soundtrack. The new mix isn’t the brightest I’ve heard: it suffices for a mid-‘80s comedy, but it isn’t altogether spectacular. French and Spanish mono tracks are also included, as are English (SDH), French and Spanish subtitles.
The bottom line: while the bonus materials suck, the improved audio/video aspects of this classic make this well worth the upgrade from the previously-released Standard-Definition DVD.
It’s certainly a lot better than that old Key Video release I wore out during the ‘80s.