Even the best John Hughes movies have moments that haven’t aged so well, so we shouldn’t be surprised that Better Off Dead shares the same fate to some degree. From haircuts to music, the 1985 film has elements that are purely of its era, but it also boasts moments of surreal humor that were unlike anything else going on in teen comedies at the time. The brainchild of Savage Steve Holland (who later went on to create 1986’s One Crazy Summer and 1989’s How I Got Into College), Better Off Dead stars John Cusack as Lane Meyer, a teenager driven to thoughts of suicide when his girlfriend/obsession dumps him for ski team captain Roy Stalin (Aaron Dozier).
The mention of a ski team should raise red flags for anyone who’s well-versed in their ‘80s movie lore. It’s not spoiling much to reveal that the film leads to a ski duel between Meyer and Stalin. I’ve always had an irrational bias against films containing snow anyway, so I didn’t enjoy the ski duel even when I saw Better Off Dead in the theater. Now, it seems like the cheesy epitome of the ‘80s movie cliché in which our beleaguered hero must best some arrogant twit in some kind of sport.
And while we’re on the subject, there’s an argument to be made that you could pretty much skip the last 30 minutes of Better Off Dead, depending on how offended you might be by the following:
- the aforementioned ski duel
- the ease and lack of expense that Lane encounters restoring a ‘67 Camaro to gleaming perfection
- not one, but two montages
That might not sound like much of a recommendation, but Better Off Dead finds its comfort zone not in the established cliches of ‘80s teen comedies, but in the loopy little avenues discovered by its unique sense of humor. A menacing paperboy in search of two dollars (“plus tip!”), a mother whose cooking more closely resembles genetic tampering than food, a pair of yellow-blazered drag-racing brothers whose only English comes from vintage Wild World of Sports and Howard Cosell: these and other little oddball moments pop up throughout Better Off Dead, producing quotes and scenes that are cherished by the film’s devoted cult audience. How devoted and cult? Well, even the Camaro has its own website.
Better Off Dead is also blessed with strong performances. Diane Franklin brings fetching charm to her role as a French foreign exchange student living with Lane’s mother/son neighbors (played with gonzo gusto by Laura Waterbury and Dan Schneider). Kim Darby is memorably loopy as Lane’s mom, while David Ogden Stiers is perfect in his befuddled interactions with Lane. You could argue that few of the movie’s characters are sketched out past their quirks, so good casting definitely made a difference.
In interviews, Holland has claimed that Better Off Dead doesn’t receive much respect when it comes to DVD releases, and this Blu-Ray release certainly won’t change that perception. The lone extra is the film’s original trailer, which offers no clue to the weird delights hidden in the film.
The cast reportedly remember Better Off Dead fondly, so your standard commentary track might have been fun. The only person they definitely couldn’t have gotten would have been Cusack, who reportedly hates the film with a passion. Personally, I think he’s being a bit hard on the film, as Better Off Dead is a far sight better than most of the teen comedies that came out during that time, sharing the rarefied company of movies that favored intelligence, quirkiness, and heart over raunch.