Last week, we ran a special WTF episode about the 1979 Disney movie, The Black Hole, an uncommonly adult film for the family-friendly studio. It kicked off an experiment for the studio to move into adult fare, eventually spawning no less than three subsidiaries that produced some of the most influential movies of the 80s, 90s and 2000s. These off-shoots paved the way for Disney’s place as the most powerful motion picture studio in the world, with them owning Lucasfilm, Pixar and the MCU. With the studio celebrating its 100th anniversary, we figured now would be an opportune time to look back at the studio Disney launched to distribute their more grown-up fare, the now shuttered Touchstone Pictures.
Jump back to 1983, when Disney put out a now obscure comedy called Trenchcoat, starring Airplane’s Robert Hayes and Superman’s Margot Kidder. A comic mystery, it was produced by Walt Disney Productions but was considered so adult that the company released it under a subsidiary called Buena Vista Distribution. The name Walt Disney was nowhere to be found on the film. The movie flopped, but other more-adult-oriented Disney films like Tron and Never Cry Wolf did pretty well, yet fell short of their full potential. The common thought was that the Walt Disney brand was considered too childish and that whenever people saw the company name, they assumed they would be seeing a kids movie.
In 1984, the company released their first movie under Touchstone, which the company intended to be their more adult-oriented arm. That film was Splash, which became a smash hit, launching the careers of stars Tom Hanks, Daryl Hannah and John Candy, and director Ron Howard. Despite their early success, the first year or so of operations for Touchstone was rocky, with them producing movies like Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend and My Science Project, which felt like slightly risqué Disney films and nothing more.
Their fortunes began to turn when they focused on lower-budget R-rated comedies starring people who, arguably, were considered washed up. That’s why you had actors like Richard Dreyfuss and Bette Midler lead films like Down and Out in Beverly Hills, Ruthless People and Stakeout, all of which were smash-hits that revitalized careers. Suddenly, they were hip.
This led to the golden age of Touchstone, with them producing the Martin Scorsese classic The Color of Money, Good Morning Vietnam, Cocktail, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and so many others. The studio became such a success that Disney opened another subsidiary, Hollywood Pictures, which was initially a pipeline for lower-budget fare like Encino Man, but eventually released larger films like Judge Dredd, Dangerous Minds, The Rock and The Sixth Sense. Finally, Hollywood Pictures was folded into Touchstone, but, as Disney itself became willing to release PG-13 rated movies on their own, such as the Pirates of the Caribbean series and the Marvel films, and R-rated adult dramas became a business the studio no longer had any interest in, they folded.
With Touchstone only a memory, on the 100th anniversary of Disney, it would be fun to make a list of 10 underrated, quasi-obscure Touchstone movies worth checking out.
If people enjoy watching Danny DeVito play the notorious Frank Reynolds on It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, they should check out 1986’s Ruthless People, which almost serves as a prequel to that show. In it, he plays a heartless business person who plots to do away with his rich, shrewish wife, played by a memorably unhinged Bette Midler. Lucky for him, she gets kidnapped, and being the bastard he is, he refuses to pay the ransom, hoping they just kill her. Yet, the kidnappers prove to be a likable young couple (Judge Reinhold and Helen Slater) who actually rebuild Midler’s self-esteem, and eventually, the three turn the tables on him. It’s a hilarious little movie.
This John Badham action-comedy was a favorite of mine as a kid. Still, it is perhaps not all that PC in 2023, with it mainly about two horny cops on a stakeout who, to their delight, discover that the frequently naked woman they’re spying on in the smoking hot Madeline Stowe. Yet, the movie is a ton of fun, with Richard Dreyfus cast against type as a heroic male lead, while young Emilio Estevez tries to look grown up by wearing a cop stache. One of the best things about Stakeout is how well it juggles the comedy and the action, veering back and forth from zany antics to hard-R eighties action with aplomb. Aidan Quinn also makes for a menacing bad guy. That said, the sequel, Another Stakeout, really sucks.
An Innocent Man
Tom Selleck plays a wrongly accused man set up by two corrupt cops and spends three years in a super-max prison. The experience changes him from a gentle airline mechanic to a hardened killer looking for revenge, and the film is surprisingly hard-edged for a 1980s Tom Selleck vehicle. David Rasche from Veep, Succession and Sledge Hammer makes for a loathsome villain, while F. Murray Abraham is excellent as the lifer who shows new fish Selleck the ropes. Think of this as a less grim Shot Caller, albeit one with a Hollywood-style happy ending.
Kurt Russell sends up Snake Plisken as an eye-patching-wearing boat captain hired by Martin Short’s harried family man. This movie has a lot of hilarious bits, with Russell effective in a rare comic turn. Notably, Russell and Short became lifelong friends after this was made, which seems recurring for the always genial Short.
Director J. A Bayona is about to launch a new telling of the infamous Andes survivors story on Netflix, but the 1993 version put out by Touchstone holds up well thirty years later. While Ethan Hawke may not be the first name that comes to mind when making a film about the Uruguayan rugby team that crash-landed in the Andes and were forced to resort to cannibalism to survive, this is nonetheless a terrific movie. It’s a highly empathetic tale of survival, beautifully directed by Frank Marshall.
This film was a hot-button topic when it came out in 1993. A dark examination of the pressures of College football, the movie contained an infamous scene where players sat on a lane divider in traffic as a macho stunt. This scene was excised from all prints while the movie was still in theaters after a couple of teens got killed copying it. While that tragedy led to the film being somewhat shelved by the studio, it’s a pretty thrilling sports film with great performances by the late James Caan and the hulking Andrew Bryniarski.
Summer of Sam
Spike Lee’s epic examination of the hysteria surrounding the Son of Sam murders that rocked New York City in the summer of 1977 ranks as one of his finest films. If you ever wanted to see what a movie like Goodfellas or Boogie Nights would have been like had it been directed by Lee, this is the movie for you. John Leguizamo gives the performance of his life in the lead role. At the same time, Mira Sorvino, Jennifer Esposito and Adrien Brody are all so good that, were the movie better received in ’99, I think they all would have gotten Oscar nods. This is a legit forgotten masterpiece.
Enemy of the State
While it was a box office hit in 1998, Enemy of the State remains one of the more obscure entries in the combined filmographies of Tony Scott, Will Smith and Jerry Bruckheimer. This is a terrific nineties update of classic seventies paranoia thrillers, with Gene Hackman stealing the show as a character that might just be the guy he played in the Francis Ford Coppola classic The Conversation.
The Count of Monte Cristo
This old-fashioned swashbuckler was a sleeper hit in the winter of 2002. A fresh take on the Alexander Dumas classic, the now controversial Jim Caviezel plays our swashbuckling hero, Edmond Dantes, who is framed for a crime he didn’t commit and escapes decades of imprisonment to wreak havoc on his accusers. A very young Henry Cavill plays his son.
Reign of Fire
One would think that a post-apocalyptic dragon movie starring Christian Bale, Matthew McConaughey and Gerard Butler would be better known, but this movie sank like a stone in the summer of 2002. While the CGI hasn’t held up well, this movie is a total blast, and I’m convinced it was one of the reasons why Christopher Nolan wanted Bale to play the lead in Batman Begins.