Most times when I watch movies and TV I can’t help but go into a sort of Knight Rider-esque Super Pursuit Mode. It’s like I divide my attention evenly between soaking in the story, the technique, and the production design. I’m not claiming any special power, but I feel like I tend to gleam a few more details while watching than those I’m watching with. For over a decade I had a regular movie night once a week with my best friend, one of the smartest folks I’ve ever met who always has a handle on the many angles of perception when it comes to discussions and arguments, and it never failed that we’d clash over something when discussing the movies afterwards. It usually boiled down to some minute detail in the background or element of the plot that I saw that he didn’t and we’d inevitably have to pop the film back in the player and find this thing that I saw. Again, not claiming any special awareness, but I find myself in this position a lot. It’s one of the things that led me to writing the series of Awesome 80s Bedroom pieces over the last few years here at Branded. I love finding all the weird and fun details that often times slip through the cracks unless we watch films five or six times.
Since I’ve been so hyper aware of spotting stuff like this, I’ve started noticing a fun trend in films where there are some odd allusions, these small moments of breaking the pop culture 4th wall that are really cool when you stop and think about them. Some of these are more obvious than others, and most are probably tongue in cheek inside jokes from the filmmakers, but there are a couple that I think are unintentional and that makes them all the more interesting. It raises this question for the folks working in set design or costuming, when decorating a room or picking out t-shirts and the like, when do you filter out some pop culture in order to avoid breaking the 4th wall? Or is this a level of detail that is too minute to matter?
Here’s a list of some of my favorite allusions in film. The first few aren’t within the purview of the 80s, but they’re a great set up to the topic.
1). 13 Ghosts (1960) – Co-star Margaret Hamilton, who starred as the Wicked Witch of the West in the Wizard of Oz, strikes a WW pose in the film.
This is certainly in the tongue in cheek department as Hamilton would become famous for evoking the Wicked Witch in many television appearances for decades after the Wizard of Oz, but it’s still a fun allusion in the 1960 William Castle production.
2). Mallrats (1995) – When Willam calls Rene (Shannon Dorherty) Brenda referencing her character Brenda Walsh from 90210.
Again, very much tongue in cheek, Kevin Smith was hyper-aware of his casting with Dortherty and he loves dropping little Easter eggs in his films like this. But mashing it up in such a way that the character is directly referenced as another is where reference becomes a way more fun allusion.
3). Boyz N the Hood (1991) – The crackhead wearing the Where’s Easy (as in Easy E) shirt that tries to steal Dooky’s gold chain.
This was a purposeful jab by Ice Cube and John Singleton at Easy and Cube’s former group N.W.A. A slight visual dis to his former friend, and it feels so apropos in the hip hop setting of the film.
So let’s shift gears and take a look at some of my favorite allusions in 80s era films that I’ve noticed over the years.
4). Working Girl (1988) – Sigourny Weaver’s character Katherine brings home a giant stuffed gorilla when returning from a trip.
This was a jokey reference to Weaver’s other 1988 film, Gorillas in the Mist. Honestly, I thought this was funny because it seemed like such a random reference. I was expecting maybe to see the tiny panties from the end of Alien in the scene where Katherine is trying to rekindle a romance with Harrison Ford’s character instead. But this works.
5). Spaceballs (1987) – John Hurt’s cameo in the film reprising his role of Kane from Alien, complete with chestburster joke.
Speaking of Alien, and sure, this one might stretch the idea of a cinematic allusion a bit considering Hurt wasn’t a main character in the film, but the fact that Mel Brooks went the extra mile to cast Hurt in his Alien homage makes it feel like it’s a good example.
6). The Goonies (1985) – Audience members with eagle eyes will notice a few references to writer Chris Columbus’ earlier film, Gremlins.
There are two main Gremlins references in the film. Mikey has some of the mogwai toys on his dresser in his room (number 3 in the picture above) at the start of the film, and later on when Chunk is trying to call the cops about the Fratelli’s hideout, the officer makes a joke about Lawrence reporting gremlins attacking Astoria previously. This blending of Spielberg-produced kid’s flicks (or just kid’s flicks in general) of the 80s is nothing new. James Kahn connects the Goonies to Poltergeist in the 1985 novelization, and Joe Dante put Stripe’s skull from Gremlins in Ben’s (Ethan Hawke) room in The Explorers.
7). Tango & Cash (1989) – When Sylvester Stallone (Tango) disses his former role of Rambo.
By this time in the 80s Stallone was already a pop culture icon for his roles in the Rocky & Rambo franchises, so it was funny seeing his joking around about John Rambo in Tango & Cash.
8). The Cannonball Run (1981) – Seeing Bandit’s Black Trans Am pass J. J. McClure’s Ambulance in the race.
Both Smokey and the Bandit and the Cannonball Run were directed by Hal Needham (of Rad fame) and starred Burt Reynolds, so it was no surprise to see Bandit’s Trans Am pop up, but it was still a funny visual gag none the less.
9). Just One of the Guys (1985) – Sherilyn Fenn’s Sandy makes a reference to the Karate Kid when the main bully in both films was played by William Zabka.
This is one of the allusions that I’m fairly certain was more organic and not intentional, which makes it one of my favorites. It’s also one of my all-time favorite comedies, so any excuse to talk about it…
10). Cloak & Dagger (1984) – Henry Thomas as Davey standing in front of an Atari poster heavily featuring the E.T. video game.
This is hands down one of my favorite allusions in any 80s movie. Again, I have a feeling that this was completely unintentional and that’s what makes it such a great Easter egg.
What are your favorite allusions in film and TV?