Every Halloween, we traditionally invite a horror-movie enthusiast to program a 24-hour horror film fest. To wind down 1992 Week at The A.V. Club, a few of us decided to suggest a similar marathon for those looking to travel back in time to the strange world of 20 years ago. To that end, we’ve compiled a 24-hour selection of films that in some way embody 1992. We had two simple rules going in: 1) The films had to take place in the world of 1992, which eliminated everything from Unforgiven to Bram Stoker’s Dracula immediately. 2) They had to be films viewers could look at and say, “Yes, that’s what 1992 was like.” These aren’t necessarily the best movies of 1992—though some are excellent—but in one way or another they’re all films made possible by the year in which they were released.
6 p.m.: Wayne’s World
Why not begin your 24 hours of 1992 with the most 1992 movie imaginable? Wayne’s World lovingly brought Saturday Night Live’s late-’80s/early-’90s second golden age to the big screen in a film that magically made the concept of transforming a five-minute, catchphrase-dependent sketch into a 95-minute movie seem not only palatable but irresistible. Even more remarkably, Wayne’s World hearkens back to a time when Mike Myers was a beloved young comic with a fresh and funny sensibility that the world embraced, and not a desperate hack cynically recycling the same tired shtick in tired sequel after tired sequel. Here, Myers plays the lovably stunted host of a public-access TV show who, with sidekick Dana Carvey, wrestles with the temptation of selling out after a slick young executive (Rob Lowe) promises to catapult his modest little Aurora, Illinois sensation into a big deal with the help of sponsorship. The connective tissue between the meta-tomfoolery of Looney Tunes and the everyone’s-a-star populism of the YouTube and Facebook age, Wayne’s World giddily tears down the fourth wall throughout, most notably in a riotous spoof of product placement that doubles as nifty, high-profile product placement. Wayne’s World documents the end of the beautiful, idiotic hair-metal dream through a subplot that finds Myers and Lowe competing for the affections of a big-haired temptress played by Tia Carrere. Funny and enormously likeable, it’s a lighthearted and utterly delightful opener to our grueling descent into 1992 in film.
7:35 p.m.: The Crying Game
Hopefully, after a comedy, our theoretical marathoners will be able to settle down and get serious for a while. Otherwise, they may get whiplash moving from something as silly and self-aware as Wayne’s World to a movie as somber as The Crying Game. But those who haven’t already seen this movie may get whiplash anyway. It’s one of those unpredictable gear-changers that starts one way—as a moody hostage drama that puts British soldier Forest Whitaker in the semi-reluctant hands of IRA guard Stephen Rea for a long, low-key opening that sees the two of them cautiously bonding—then switches gears altogether. Neil Jordan’s Oscar-winner (for Best Original Screenplay, though it was also up for Best Leading and Supporting Actor, Director, Picture, and Editing) defined arthouse theater in 1992: Its complicated politics and long conversations marked it as serious cinema, while the stylish cinematography and sex-and-violence focus gave it a mainstream appeal, and its reputation for having an amazing, unforeseeable twist made it famous. It’s still a solid thriller, and a great film to watch while still focused and alert enough to take in all the little give-and-take moments among the actors.
9:30 p.m.: Basic Instinct
The AIDS crisis made sex, disease, and death synonymous in the minds of a generation that came of age in the late ’80s and early ’90s and consequently came to see sex as inherently dangerous, if not fatal. No thriller of 1992 exploited that toxic association more smoothly, potently, or lucratively than Basic Instinct, a zeitgeist-capturing erotic romp that’s perfect as our movie marathon heads deep into the sexy, sexy night. A triumph of style over substance—or perhaps style-as-substance—Basic Instinct finds brilliant satirist and stylist Paul Verhoeven taking a deliciously pulpy Joe Eszterhas screenplay about a jaded detective (Michael Douglas at his most Michael Douglas) bedding a wealthy bisexual provocateur (Sharon Stone, in the peek-a-boo role that launched her to stardom) who may be behind a series of brutal, sexually charged murders and elevating it to the realm of art, or at least super-sleek entertainment. Verhoeven brings a Hitchcockian sense of style to the sordid doings while playing up the exquisite vulgarity of some of Eszterhas’ ripest non-Showgirls dialogue. Basic Instinct exploited the sexual and gender uncertainty of the time to its own drooling, prurient ends—in spite of its lush, decadent production values, the film’s mind remains in the sewer—while capturing a widespread sense of unease over the possible ramifications of these new freedoms. Basic Instinct was a film of its time, but Verhoeven’s direction and the film’s neo-noir trappings lend it a distinct timelessness.
11:35 p.m.: The Lawnmower Man
In 1992, the world at large was just starting to figure out what a huge role computers and this strange thing called “cyberspace” would play in the near future. Consequently, science-fiction films like The Lawnmower Man started to look to the influence of William Gibson and other computer-focused writers for inspiration. Ostensibly based on a 1975 Stephen King story—though King sued to have his name removed from the project—the film owes more to the ascendant cyberpunk movement and some vague notions that we’d soon be spending a lot of our time in virtual-reality realms where anything could happen. Well, anything that 1992 special-effects technology could imagine, anyway. Here, Jeff Fahey plays a simpleton given godlike powers by virtual reality, somehow. (Hey, it’s science.) The film’s computer imagery could be called “groundbreaking” in the sense that “groundbreaking” sometimes means “pretty silly looking.” It’s not a good film, at all, but it’s now mind-bending as a vision of an impending future that never arrived.
1:20 a.m.: Candyman
Here’s something genuinely scary for the middle of the night to wash away the taste of The Lawnmower Man. Adapting a Clive Barker short story, writer-director Bernard Rose moves the action to Chicago and casts Virginia Madsen as a scholar exploring urban legends, including that of “The Candyman,” a murderous spirit summoned by saying his name five times in a mirror. As she investigates, Madsen finds evidence to back up the story and eventually runs into Candyman himself, played with monstrous dignity by Tony Todd. Rose skillfully doles out all the requisite jolts of a horror film released at the tail end of the cycle that produced boogeyman franchises like Child’s Play and A Nightmare On Elm Street, but he adds creepy class via a Philip Glass score and grounds Candyman in real-life problems. The film traces its bad guy’s origins back to his life as a slave who was murdered for falling in love with a white woman, and sets much of its action within Chicago’s real-life (and since-demolished) Cabrini-Green housing project. Candyman’s scary, sure, but he also serves as a reminder that America’s bloody history of racial injustice lingers on.
3 a.m.: Straight Talk
After all that, how about a less-terrifying tale of 1992 Chicago? If nothing else, the romantic pairing of James Woods and Dolly Parton could only have happened in 1992. Here, Parton plays a small-town girl (well, middle-aged woman) who moves to the big city, accidentally falls into a career as a radio therapist, and falls in love with Woods, a no-nonsense reporter won over by her country charms. It’s the purest big-screen distillation of Parton’s persona, which has always been grounded in the notion that country common sense trumps big-city sophistication any day of the week, and while it’s not entirely successful as a movie, the weird anti-chemistry between the reptilian Woods and Parton makes it fascinating, especially to slightly sleep-deprived viewers. Try to stay awake for the scene where the film signals that the lovebirds will consummate their relationship by having Parton drop an enormous bra from behind a door.
4:30 a.m.: Toys
Anyone still awake after Dolly Parton finds true love should probably get some rest. The joy of Barry Levinson’s completely cracked manic man-child story Toys is that it feels like a vaguely disturbing dream, so viewers can watch it at 4:30 a.m. and feel like they actually did get some sleep, albeit sleep haunted by Tori Amos music and Robin Williams’ cavorting. Williams stars as a toy-factory scion whose estranged uncle (Michael Gambon) takes over the highly successful family business, dumping the whimsy in favor of violent war toys. It’s a deeply offbeat fantasy, made even more dreamlike by Joan Cusack’s performance as Williams’ strange woman-child sister who sleeps inside a giant light-up duck—and LL Cool J’s habit of turning up in disguise—and the vividly colorful cinematography, and the ultra-surreal imagery, and the Thomas Dolby music video in the middle of an action sequence, and basically every other aspect of the film. This isn’t a film that exemplifies its era so much as a film that wouldn’t have fit into any era, but it’s still unbeatably weird fun.
6:30 a.m.: The Hand That Rocks The Cradle
Hey, remember that film from 1992 where a nice, normal person or family meets someone who’s nice at first then turns out to be totally, murderously bonkers? We could have easily filled a good chunk of this marathon with a triple feature of Unlawful Entry, Single White Female, and the one we went with, The Hand That Rocks The Cradle, all examples of the Fatal Attraction-inspired thrillers that flowered in 1992. (A chunk of a 1993 marathon could be eaten up by more films from this trend, which spilled into the following year.) But the Curtis Hanson-directed Cradle remains the best of the bunch, wringing creepiness from marital and parental anxieties by casting Rebecca De Mornay as a too-perfect nanny who takes over the home of some happy new parents (Annabella Sciorra and Matt McCoy) as part of an elaborate revenge scheme. It’s unapologetically trashy, but its best scenes, like a shot of De Mornay breastfeeding a child that’s not hers, connect on a primal level.
8:30 a.m.: Deep Cover
By this point, viewers are liable to feel more than a little confused and groggy. That’s the perfect state of mind to take in Bill Duke’s Deep Cover, a shadowy neo-noir about a charismatic undercover officer (Laurence Fishburne) who teams up with an eccentric attorney who dabbles in drug trafficking (Jeff Goldblum) and finds himself torn between a job he sees as increasingly hypocritical and his new allies in the underworld. Deep Cover wallows in moral ambiguity as it explores the extensive blowback created by an amorphous, unwinnable War On Drugs. Fishburne delivers the film’s hardboiled narration in a sonorous purr, turning the audience into priests hearing a complicated sinner’s confession as he tries to finagle his way out of a situation where conventional notions of right and wrong are blurry to the point of meaninglessness. At its most hypnotic, Deep Cover has the disorienting quality of a dream that threatens to turn into a nightmare, but the odd partnership between the charismatic Fishburne and a simultaneously funny and scary Goldblum provides the film’s core. (Deep Cover is also remembered as the film that introduced another inspired duo in the form of legendary producer Dr. Dre, who recorded the album’s killer theme song with a skinny young protégé the world came to know and love as Snoop Doggy Dogg.)
10:15 a.m.: The Player
Okay, now it’s full-on morning and time to wake back up and get serious with a dense crime drama. Well, not entirely serious, since Robert Altman’s Hollywood satire The Player is also bitterly funny, particularly in its portrait of artists selling out for a quick payday and a writing credit on a Bruce Willis/Julia Roberts flick. 1992 was the year that made Tim Robbins a star (strangely, 1986’s Howard The Duck and 1989’s Erik The Viking didn’t quite push him over the top), and The Player is half the reason. Robbins plays a slick, soulless studio executive who’s being blackmailed by an enemy, but he doesn’t know who or why. While it’s lighter and tighter than most Altman films, it has the director’s usual kitchen-sink approach to casting, with an ensemble of cameos that serves as a time-capsule of which stars were big enough names in 1992 to represent Hollywood stardom just by casually walking by. (Hello, Robert Carradine, Cher, Harry Belafonte, Steve Allen, Peter Falk, Dennis Franz, Jack Lemmon, Martin Mull, Nick Nolte, and many more.) The cameos make it a picture of its era, but it’s still pretty timely when it comes to examining the lure of Hollywood fame and perceived power at the expense of integrity, idealism, or dreams about actually making art.
12:20 p.m.: Bob Roberts
The second half of the “Tim Robbins, King Of 1992” double-feature also remains timely, though in this case as an illustration of how American politics in the media age are more about presentation and perception than about truth. Robbins again stars in (and in this case, also writes and directs) a film about a slickly countrified folksinger running for a Senate seat under the lies-and-smiles ticket. While the title character manipulates the press with his folksy character and sound-bite-friendly conservative-agenda songs, the reporter digging into his past keeps finding evidence of deep corruption masked with a big-lie approach to cynicism. Heavily compared to 1984’s mock-rockumentary This Is Spinal Tap for its fake-doc style and freewheeling humor, Bob Roberts earned a lot of positive attention in 1992, but its messages remain creepy and unsettling: Essentially, the film points out, public image counts for far more than actual integrity, and with the right kind of image, unscrupulous people can easily get others to do their dirty work. Given Bob Roberts’ entertaining packaging, the moral makes for a bitter poison pill at the center.
2:10 p.m.: Singles
Did we call Wayne’s World the most 1992 film imaginable? We might have spoken too soon. Cameron Crowe’s romantic comedy about unattached twentysomethings in contemporary Seattle was conceived and filmed before the city became the epicenter of cool following grunge’s breakthrough in 1991. Crowe at least knew a memorable scene when he saw one, setting much of his film against the backdrop of the soon-to-explode Seattle music scene. The film’s a typically funny, heartfelt Crowe effort, and among the first to acknowledge that the generation captured in ’80s teen films—including Crowe’s great Say Anything—were growing up, wearing flannel, drinking lots of coffee, and turning irony into a form of everyday communication (and that the lattermost development wasn’t making falling in love and finding happiness any easier).
3:50 p.m.: Reservoir Dogs
As much as Singles captured its era, Reservoir Dogs defined the era to come, largely by seeming so effortlessly cool that it inspired a generation of filmmakers to go forth and do likewise. Quentin Tarantino’s independently produced writing-directing feature debut was striking in part because it so clearly operated on a tiny budget: It’s just a handful of actors and a few locations, and nearly the whole film is conversation and posturing of various sorts. But over the course of all the banter and confrontation, which is split up into a time-fractured narrative and spiked with nervy, eclectic songs, Reservoir Dogs takes on a stylish, hipshot tone that has nothing to do with money. Its legacy was a decade of indie and studio filmmakers trying to reproduce it with their own cast of fast-talking clever types, their own narrative gimmicks, and their own flashy cinematography. It isn’t just the end of our 1992 marathon; it was the beginning of a new era for independent cinema.