“The Goonies,” which celebrated the largely unobserved 30th anniversary of its release this week is, how shall I put this, an enormous pile of junk. In recent years, a kind of perverse cult has grown up around the film, composed of people who loved the movie as kids and have carried that fondness into adulthood with them, but nostalgic fondness can’t erase the utter shoddiness of this hacktastic crapfest. That said, I owe “The Goonies” a profound debt. You could say it changed my life — not by being great, but by being terrible.
I was 12 when “The Goonies” was released in 1985, dead center in its target demo. I don’t remember what I thought of the movie — I probably liked it uncritically, the way I liked almost everything back then — but I do recall being especially taken by one particular moment. At the end of the movie, after the group of cynically curated misfits foils their gangster foes, they’re interviewed by a TV reporter, and as they recount their storybook adventures, Data (Ke Huy Quan) shouts, “The octopus was really scary!”
There is, of course, no octopus in “The Goonies.” At the time, I took this as a hilarious commentary on the way children lie for attention and gullible adults lap it up, especially when it makes for a good story. It was a subtle joke, never underlined or acknowledged, and 12-year-old me felt awfully sophisticated for picking up on it.
Fast-forward a few days or a few weeks: I’m standing in a Waldenbooks on my home town’s main street, leafing through Cinefantastique magazine so I wouldn’t have to buy my own copy, when I come across an article on “The Goonies.” (This one, in fact.) There I found, laid out in black and white, a detailed description of the octopus sequence that had been cut from the movie, complete with a picture of the unused latex cephalopod. Data’s “octopus” line wasn’t a clever in-joke; it was a reference to a scene that was cut out because it looked lousy (and when you consider what made it into the film, that’s a truly frightening thought).
I felt swindled, like “The Goonies” had put one over on me, but that experience taught me two things I never forgot: Movies are made by people, and sometimes those people are lazy. Given that I was reading a movie magazine, I’m sure I knew by then that movies had directors and writers and didn’t simply appear on the screen, but I’d never considered the possibility that something might make it into a movie simply because no one cared enough to change it. It was a budding cinephile’s equivalent to learning that grown-ups lie.
Knowing more about movies now than I did then, I can warm to the possibility that “Goonies” director Richard Donner — or, heck, Señor Spielbergo himself — saw the possibility that the “octopus” line could play as I first interpreted it, obviating the need for a costly reshoot and embracing the kind of accident that has given birth to many great movie moments. In fact, it might be the most inventive thing in “The Goonies,” which otherwise seems like a lifeless attempt to emulate producer Steven Spielberg’s magic-of-childhood schtick. Yet bad as “The Goonies” is, the octopus scene, which eventually surfaced on the DVD, is worse. And it’s not scary at all.
Update: Credit to my friend Amy for reminding me of the one unequivocally great thing about “The Goonies.”