Twenty years ago, the summer box office sizzled like it usually does, with a litany of smash hit films or cult favorites that are still remembered fondly to this day. Like many summer movie seasons, the summer of 1996 had something for every taste with an emphasis on explosive action and dazzling special effects.
Let’s take a trip down memory lane to when we eagerly awaited a massive alien invasion, terrifying weather, classic ’90s actioners, our favorite comedians, and other treasures as we take a look at All The Summer Blockbusters We Were Watching Twenty Years Ago.
13. The Frighteners
Sharing traits of both Ghostbusters and Back to the Future, The Frighteners is a humorous and fast-moving horror movie that starred Michael J. Fox as an architect that can communicate with ghosts. He uses this ability to run scams where he exorcises ghosts (in reality, his deceased friends) from supposedly haunted homes. One day, he encounters a ghostly serial killer preying on the living with ties to his own past that he must now confront.
Directed by Peter Jackson (yes, that Peter Jackson, the man behind The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies), and produced by Robert Zemeckis, The Frighteners is an energetic and thrilling viewing experience with terrific visuals and some memorable performances. Jeffrey Combs stood out as a bizarre paranormal investigator/FBI agent who can best be described as Fox Mulder on crack. Over the years, the film has garnered a cult following from many who were taken by the film’s virtues.
12. The Craft
Sarah (Robin Tunney) is the new teenage girl in town and falls in with a trio of teenagers (Neve Campbell, Fairuza Balk and Rachel True) who all have issues like Sarah. It turns out that this new clique are witches and Sarah quickly starts developing supernatural powers herself. Soon, the coven begin casting revenge and wish-fulfillment spells that are beneficial at first, but then they start to produce negative consequences. Adding to those problems is a power struggle that erupts between Sarah and the other witches.
This horror film was an early summer release and turned out to be an unexpected sleeper hit in theaters, which should not be surprising given its appealing young cast, teenage characters who experienced problems at home and school, a catchy soundtrack, and horror trappings. All these ingredients were perfect for drawing in teenage girls into theaters that summer who identified with the conflicted characters onscreen.
11. Escape From L.A.
The sequel to the cult favorite Escape From New York would turn out to be the last collaboration between famed director/actor team John Carpenter Kurt Russell. Set a few years in the future in a dystopian U.S. on the verge of war, criminal Snake Plissken (Russell) is forcibly recruited by the U.S. government to infiltrate Los Angeles and rescue the President’s daughter, who has the remote for a super WMD. By this time in the future, L.A. has broken up into a chain of islands and become a walled-off hellhole run by gangs that Plissken must go through.
For the most part, this sequel is a virtual retelling of Escape From New York. But it was great seeing Russell don his signature eye patch and speak in a Clint Eastwood-esque tough guy voice. Carpenter, as usual, was on the nose with his social commentary and sight gags in this nightmarish version of L.A. The film was also highlighted by some noteworthy and comical supporting performances, like Steve Buscemi as “Map to the Stars” Eddie and Peter Fonda as Pipeline, who aided Russell in creating the greatest surf scene ever put to film.
Dennis Quaid starred in this fantasy adventure as a knight in ancient England who slays dragons. On one mission he meets Draco (voiced by Sean Connery), who turns out to be the last dragon in existence. The two strike up a friendship as they run scams on gullible villagers, then form a rebellion against a tyrannical ruler.
Dragonheart was a solid hit in the summer of 1996, raking in $115 million, though it was overshadowed by other blockbuster fare (that we’ll discuss in a bit). Still, critics and fans were enchanted by the gorgeously rendered (for the time) CG dragon that earned the film an Academy Award nomination for special effects. However, what made Draco so memorable was Connery’s distinctive voice acting, which helped make the dragon the film’s most remarkable and noble character. The sweeping film score by Randy Edelman has since popped up in other film trailers and events, and is probably Dragonheart‘s best known legacy.
9. The Cable Guy
Jim Carrey starred as the title character in this dark comedy directed by Ben Stiller. Down-on-his-luck Steve (Matthew Broderick) one day meets “Chip” the Cable Guy, who paid him a house call to install cable. The two strike up a strange friendship, as the Cable Guy acts more and more bizarre and exhibits a troubling obsession with helping Steve with his love life.
The Cable Guy came out during the height of Jim Carrey’s fame and was a decided departure for the comedian. The film had Carrey’s trademark over-the-top antics, but his character’s dark and disturbing persona was a turnoff to many fans who wanted the usual lighthearted Carrey shtick, while others applauded the change of pace. In many ways, The Cable Guy marked a turning point in Jim Carrey’s career, as he tried to break away from his reliably goofy film characters.
8. The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Based on Victor Hugo’s classic novel, this was Disney’s 34th animated film and followed the Disney golden formula of being a musical fantasy. Quasimodo (voiced by Tom Hulce) is a kind, but deformed hunchback who helps protect Esmeralda, a gypsy (voiced by Demi Moore), from a vindictive and prejudiced minister (voiced by Tony Jay), who wants to persecute her for supposedly practicing witchcraft.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame is heralded as one of Disney’s more underrated animated films but was nonetheless a box office success when it was released in the summer of 1996. At this time, Disney was in the middle of its so-called Disney Renaissance, and this film rode the wave from the goodwill of the company’s earlier releases in the decade. What makes this animated classic stand apart are its surprisingly mature themes and somewhat risky character development decisions — religious faith, bigotry, the villain’s open lusting for Esmeralda, and Quasimodo experiences with heartbreak all are driving forces in the film.
One of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s last great action pieces has the A-List star playing a U.S. Marshal who works in the Witness Protection Program. His specialty is in “erasing” witnesses by faking their deaths to better protect them from harm. Vanessa Williams co-starred as an executive at a defense contracting company that’s dealing with the black market. Armed with evidence that would indict her bosses, Williams’ character goes on the run with the Marshal, who has been framed by rogue elements in the government, as they evade her assassins and protect the evidence.
If this sounds like your typical ’90s action yarn to you, well, we won’t argue. Still, while Eraser may sound familiar, it was a rousing action film with a few incredible moments, aided by terrific stunt work and Schwarzenegger’s easy bravado. In other words, the textbook summer recipe for success at the box office. What more could a moviegoer (and film executives) ask for in a popcorn film?
Fresh off the slam dunk career boost that was 1994’s Pulp Fiction, John Travolta was hot on the comeback trail during this period and continued his box-office success with Phenomenon. Travolta played George Malley, a not too bright, small-town nice guy who develops vastly increased mental capacities after encountering strange lights in the sky (the film never explicitly declares that the lights are extraterrestrial in nature). Afterward, George begins to exhibit superhuman intelligence and eventually develops telekinesis. George newfound local fame starts to get to him, but with the help of close friends and a new love, George is able to continue helping others and improving the lives of those around him.
Phenomenon was a rather touching and introspective film that evoked a sense of wonder. Thanks to the well-written script by Gerald Di Pego and especially Travolta’s quiet and sensitive performance, Phenomenon struck a chord that summer in 1996 with audiences seeking a genuine feel-good film.
5. The Nutty Professor
One of the funniest Eddie Murphy movies of his mid-90s heyday was a remake of a Jerry Lewis’ comedy classic. Make-up artist Rick Baker won a well-deserved Academy Award for creating the convincing fat suit that Murphy wore in this film about an overweight science professor who invents a weight-loss formula that turns him into a thin and obnoxious ladies man. Among The Nutty Professor’s highlights are Dave Chappelle’s appearance as an insult comic and Eddie Murphy playing different members of the main character’s family who were all distinct and hilarious in their own way.
Aside from the infectious laughs and its Jekyll and Hyde trappings, The Nutty Professor actually had a serious undertone about society’s obsession with body image, handling self acceptance, and that happiness can only truly be found within yourself. To its credit, the film never went overboard with these messages, which suitably buttressed the jokes.
4. The Rock
Nicolas Cage and Sean Connery star in this Michael Bay action flick, one of the director’s strongest outings to date. An FBI agent (Cage) recruits a prisoner (Connery), who once escaped from Alcatraz, to sneak into the old prison and help him stop rogue military folks located there, who want to launch missiles armed with deadly nerve gas at San Francisco.
This was director Michael Bay’s second film, and The Rock’s kinetic pacing and visceral thrills helped establish him as a go-to action director. This early Bay film displayed elements of what would become his signature hyper-directing style, minus the use of shaky cam. The Rock was bursting with lots of overwrought imagery, tense fight scenes, and plot holes, but it was entertaining as hell to watch, and believe it or not it is still one of Bay’s better films.
3. Mission: Impossible
IMF agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) got his start in the super spy business twenty years ago with the first Mission: Impossible movie. Directed by Brian De Palma, Mission: Impossible was a remake/sequel to the 1960s spy TV show. At the start of the film, Hunt’s field team is killed while on a mission overseas, and Hunt goes on the run with a group of disgraced agents to find out who killed his people and set him up.
Hunt’s debut just threw him into the action and paved the way for more modern takes on spies, as seen with Jason Bourne and the Daniel Craig version of James Bond. Regarding spy films in general, Mission: Impossible upped the ante on thrills, explosions, intrigue and stunt work. Many still recall one of the film’s most iconic scenes (glimpsed above) where Hunt delicately hangs on wires as he infiltrates CIA headquarters to retrieve a computer disk. That was actually just one of the numerous nail-biting stunts seen in the film which started a celebrated action franchise that recently reasserted its legs with its latest entry, last year’s Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation.
Helen Hunt made the big jump from TV to movie stardom with this Jan de Bont disaster movie about tornadoes. She played a meteorologist who was obsessed with twisters after witnessing her father killed during a storm in her childhood. Along with her ex-husband (Bill Paxton), she takes to storm chasing the phenomenon in order to release these doohickey sensors to better track storms.
Admittedly light on plot and character, Twister was more noted for its use of effective early CGI effects that were eye popping for its time. Many theater goers back then will always remember the famous moment in the film during one storm, where a cow was shown tossed about in the air by a particularly nasty tornado. Twister surprised as the second-biggest film of 1996 with a total cume of just under $500 million, though in the end, the box office race wasn’t all that close.
1. Independence Day
This modern take of the epic alien invasion story starred Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman and a huge cast of humans fighting a desperate struggle against alien invaders who arrive on our planet in giant motherships. Before long, the nasty critters start decimating our cities and military forces, and it’s up to a dispersed group of people ranging from a U.S. president to a crop duster to fight back.
Moviegoers during that summer could not get enough of all the stunning epic visuals that finally showed a large-scale alien attack on Earth, as the film racked up an astounding $817 million worldwide total. Despite its narrative flaws and contrived theatrics, Independence Day was great popcorn fun and retains a devoted following that should be pleased with this summer’s Resurgence, even if the star of the show isn’t returning for the fun.
Do any of these films jog your memory and make you wistful for that bygone summer of 1996? What other films take you back to that time period? Let us hear it in the comments.