In the annals of spectacular summer movie seasons, 1982 is frequently cited as a standout year, with future classics such as Blade Runner, E.T., and An Officer and a Gentleman competing for audience’s attention. Another popular choice is 1994, thanks to Forrest Gump and The Lion King. More recently, 2008 gifted us with The Dark Knight, WALL-E, and Iron Man.
Fine choices, all. But we’re throwing down the gauntlet here and now: You won’t find a better span of summer releases than the lineup that greeted moviegoers exactly 30 years ago in 1986. From May through August, marquees across America advertised still-beloved titles such as Top Gun, About Last Night, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and The Fly. And even as those films dominated the box office, movies like Short Circuit, The Great Mouse Detective, and Nothing in Common also found appreciative audiences.
Even the films that flopped were fascinating. That was the summer that George Lucas laid a giant egg with Howard the Duck (which remains the poster child for “so bad, it’s good”), while horror maestro Stephen King went gonzo for his first — and only — directorial effort, Maximum Overdrive, and Prince’s black-and-white period piece, Under the Cherry Moon, was an eyebrow-raising curiosity despite missing out on all the green that Purple Rain earned two years earlier.
Top Gun (Photo: Everett)
Maybe you had to be there to fully appreciate the cinematic riches that 1986 had to offer. I was 8 years old that summer, and I remember seeing The Karate Kid, Part II and Labyrinth virtually back-to-back and not experiencing the slightest bit of genre whiplash. I loved Flight of the Navigator so much that I had recurring dreams of chartering my own silver spaceship to Phaelon. I carefully studied the poster for Jason Lives, the sixth Friday the 13th installment, knowing full well I wouldn’t be allowed to see the actual movie. I was already a voracious movie watcher, but that summer made me a movie lover.
Three decades later, the summer of ’86 looks awfully great, maybe because it was largely free of the slew of sequels that are crowding multiplexes this summer to audience indifference. Sure, you had the aforementioned Friday the 13th and Karate Kid continuations, along with Psycho III and one of 1986’s crown jewels, Aliens. (Though, one could argue that the style and tone of James Cameron’s run-and-gun Aliens is so radically different from Ridley Scott’s austere predecessor that it almost feels like an original film.)
Aliens (Photo: Everett)
But if you run the numbers, only three of the summer’s highest-grossing movies were sequels; compare that to the summer of 2015, when seven of the top 10 earners were either direct sequels or franchise continuations. Furthermore, hits like Ruthless People, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and Cobra were allowed to be one-off success stories, with no follow-ups being rushed into production whether or not moviegoers actually wanted to see them. (Looking at you, Neighbors 2 and The Huntsman: Winter’s War.)
The other great thing about the summer of ’86 is that you can pick a weekend, any weekend, and there’s at least one movie that enjoys the reputation of contemporary classic or nostalgic favorite. Take June 13, when Rodney Dangerfield headed Back to School, Bob Hoskins explored the London underworld in Mona Lisa, and a teenage kid built an atomic bomb in The Manhattan Project. Or how about Aug. 8, when audiences got their first trip to a Spike Lee joint with She’s Gotta Have It, and embarked on a moving, hilarious quest to find a dead body in Rob Reiner’s Stand by Me. Not coincidentally, that’s also the day that a certain rom-com starring a young John Cusack and Demi Moore landed in theaters. The title? One Crazy Summer. We can’t think of a more accurate name for the summer of ’86.
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (Photo: Everett)
We’re going to be spending this week celebrating that crazy summer, with a series of features that will transport you three decades back in time, when Madonna’s True Blue album was blasting from boom boxes and shoulder pads were the height of fashion. Start with our essay series, which will take a deep dive into the summer’s 10 essential classics, the movies you still drop everything to watch whenever you find them on cable or Netflix. We’ll also pay tribute to that summer’s best bad movies, our favorite obscurities, and more. In the immortal words of Pvt. Hudson: Game over, man — the summer of ’86 is officially the Best Movie Summer Season Ever.
Summer of ‘86: 'Stand by Me’ Takes on Life, Death, and One Epic Barf-O-Rama
Summer of '86: The Terrifying Madness of ‘Manhunter’ — and Our First Introduction to an Infamous Serial Killer
Summer of ’86: ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’ Let John Hughes Graduate from Teen Movies With Honors
Watch a video about some B-movie classics that are available now to stream: