Welcome back to 80s Bits, the weekly column in which we explore the best and worst of the Decade of Shame. With guest writers, hidden gems and more, it’s truly, truly, truly outrageous.
The careers of filmmakers are funny things, never going quite where you expect them. This is true of the best and the worst of them, but Ken Kwapis perhaps redefines the idea of an eclectic career. Although known these days for heart-warmers The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and He’s Just Not That Into You, he began his feature journey with the first Sesame Street film, Follow That Bird. Before weaving his legacy through Dunston Checks In and The Beautician and the Beast (shudder), Kwapis’ sophomore effort was an off-the-wall comedy that captilised on the major studios’ tendency to greenlight anything in the 1980s.
Sylvia Pickel (Cyndi Lauper) is a trance-medium who contacts the other side via a spirit guide named Louise, a skill she acquired after falling off a ladder when she was 12. Nick Deezy (Jeff Goldblum) is a psychic who has the ability to discover the history of an object by touching it. After their respective lives begin to fall apart, Sylvia is approached by Harry Buscafusco (Peter Falk) to accompany him to Ecuador, allegedly to find his missing son. Dragging a reluctant Nick along, they soon discover there is more to the story than either of them realised, and a series of events that even a pair of psychics couldn’t predict.
Pop singer Lauper was already riding high on a series of chart singles, including “Girls Just Want To Have Fun”, “Time After Time” and “True Colors”. Despite contributing the top 10 single “The Goonies ‘R’ Good Enough” to The Goonies (1985), and an uncredited cameo in Girls Just Want To Have Fun (also 1985), Lauper didn’t make her screen debut until Vibes. The role seems tailor-made for the iconic looks of the songstress, playing her flamboyant costumes and distinctive way of speaking off Goldblum’s unhinged schtick. Yet Lauper was dedicated to the role, allegedly studying hair setting and finger waving at the Robert Fiance School of Beauty in New York, along with studying with Manhattan psychics, to get her role down pat.
Vibes is the kind of silly high-concept that could only come out of the 1980s, the illogical bastard stepchild of Romancing the Stone meets Ghostbusters, right down to the scene where a psychic picks “a couple of wavy lines” off some flash cards. “Romp” is the most apt description for Vibes, but once it gets going, it develops a groove to go along with its vibes. Goldblum, Lauper and Falk make an unlikely and surprisingly effective trio, particularly in a scene on a balcony where they discuss what to do with bodies, and the misunderstood nature of gangs. “Well, gangs are not necessarily bad,” explains Harry. “You know there are nice gangs. There was Our Gang, Alfalfa, Buckwheat…”. Similarly, Goldblum tosses off casual psychic one-liners with a natural befuddled drawl. “Another man has been holding these panties. You know I can tell”.
A critical and commercial flop on its original release, despite the presence of Ron Howard as producer, it holds up better now than it did at the time, even with the dodgy special effects. Australian fans might remember the song “Hole in My Heart (All the Way to China)”, which can be heard in the end credits, and the accompanying tie-in video set in a Chinese laundry. It made #8 in Australia, making it her fifth and final Top 10 hit locally. Like the film, it remains a historical curiosity that is worth revisiting as a globetrotting romp with inoffensive humour and and a likeable cast.