The Movies That DVD Forgot: Fire with Fire
There have been many reasons why some movies have eluded a proper DVD release in the United States. Squabbles over copyrights, squabbles over distribution rights, failure by the studio to secure home video licensing for the music, the estate of the novel the film is based on refusing to allow the release of what they feel is an unfaithful adaption. 1986's Fire with Fire was for years unavailable for perhaps the most common reason. It was a small film at a huge studio. Paramount Pictures has thousands of films in their library, several which are extremely popular. The studio has also have produced several popular television series, some which have remained on the air for a decade. And since Paramount is currently owned by Viacom, their video division releases many of their content. There is just so much they can release each month on DVD. And to complicate things even more, many of their films, such as 1978's Grease, have remained best sellers on the home video market for decades, and are rarely out of print. Because of this a huge bulk of the Paramount library remains on the low priority list, possibly never to be released. That leaves it up to a second distributor releasing Paramount movies on their own label, which is just what Olive Films will be doing this July 31st with Fire with Fire. And considering Paramount's reluctance to allow other distributors to release movies in their library, we are lucky.
The origins of the film began three years earlier with Flashdance. The movie had been a surprise hit for the studio, earning $92 million on it's initial release. Flashdance was one of the first major motion pictures to be fully influenced by MTV with several sequences that played as mini music videos during the film. Much of the movie's success could be attributed to MTV and other music video programs at the time. Casablanca records had released the popular soundtrack album, but was not interested in releasing any music videos. Paramount stepped in and released to MTV their own music videos, Donna Summer's Romeo, Irene Cara's Flashdance ( What A Feeling ), Michael Sembello's Maniac and Karen Kamon's Manhunt. None of the videos featured the singers, but instead were compilations of highlight clips from the movie, and played as free trailers for Paramount. But what really sold the movie was newcomer Jennifer Beals who's seductive sexy dances shown in those videos turned the unknown actress into a national sex symbol overnight. Flashdance was a chick flick, a movie specifically written and marketed to a female audience. Jennifer played a strong, independent teenager who worked as a steel worker by day and danced in a club at night. The young owner of the steel mill who is very rich and attractive sees Jennifer dancing at the club and immediately falls for her, and a Cinderella style story follows. And there is also another subplot with Jennifer's attempts to get an audition for a prestigious dancing academy. The film tested well with girls. But unlike other chick flicks that girls had to force their boyfriends to see with them, Flashdance was a film their boyfriends actually did want to see, thanks to Beals.
Paramount wanted to repeat the same formula, manufacturing another chick flick that attracted men. One of the scripts they liked came from the writing team of Paul & Sharon Boorstin who had formerly written exclusively for television. Their story reworked Romeo and Juliet into a modern setting. A boy from a juvenile detention camp falls for a girl in a nearby catholic school. When the adults find out of this forbidden romance, and take steps to permanently separate the teens, they decide to run away together, spending the remainder of the movie as fugitives on the lam. With some reworking by Bill Phillips and Warren Skaaren ( who would go on to write BeetleJuice and Batman for Tim Burton ) Paramount came up with what they felt was the perfect script.
Duncan Gibbins had begun directing music videos the same year Flashdance hit the theaters. He was responsible for some slightly memorable clips, like the JoBoxers Just Got Lucky and Eurythmics Who's That Girl, but achieved his greatest success with Glen Frey's Smuggler's Blues in 1985. After seeing the video on MTV, producer Michael Mann decided to rework it into an entire episode of Miami Vice. Gibbins gained the reputation of being one of the top music video directors along with Bob Giraldi and Godley & Creme. His newfound status caught the attention of Paramount, and since the MTV connection had worked so well for Flashdance, it seemed natural for a music video director to helm the studios next chick flick.
The studio would have liked Jennifer Beals, but she was unavailable. Jennifer had been cast in her first movie while still a student at Yale. After making one more film, the 1985 remake of The Bride of Frankenstein called The Bride, she decided to retire from acting until she had completed college. This kept her out of the business until 1988, and was perhaps responsible for slowing her career. Paramount wanted an actress who, like Beales, was tough, sexy and beautiful. That actress was 25 year old Virginia Madsen. Madsen had been in the business for a couple of years, long enough to make a name for herself, but had yet to star in a successful film. Her first big brake was the British/M.G.M. co-production Electric Dreams, a science fiction comedy where she found herself in a love triangle with a nerd and his highly intelligent computer named Edgar. But while the movie succeeded in producing a popular soundtrack, it failed at the box office. Madsen appeared in two more science fiction films that failed, David Lynch's attempt to bring the novel Dune ( 1984 ) to the silver screen, and another light comedy Creator ( 1985 ) with Peter O'Toole as a mad scientist attempting to clone his late wife. In the meantime she had starred in two high profile television projects, the tv movies in 1985, The Hearst Davis Affair and the miniseries Mussolini: The Untold Story as the dictators mistress. While Madsen had no box office success, Paramount believed they could elevate her to the same status as Beales.
For the lead male role Paramount cast another up and coming star, Craig Sheffer. Sheffer had two failures under his belt. As a costar in the film adaption of S.E. Hinton's novel That Was Then... This is Now. And one of the 80's more spectacular failures, the musical Voyage of the Rock Aliens ( 1984 ), a starring vehicle for Pia Zadora. Once again Paramount saw untapped potential. Sheffer was the perfect star for a chick flick, rugged good looks and a muscular body. Rounding out the cast were veteran actors Joe Polito as the prison camp boss, Tim Russ as his second in command, and Kate Reid and Jean Smart as the head nuns at the catholic school. Another notable cast member was Kari Wuhrer as one of Madsen's school mates. This was a year before she joined MTV's Remote Control, a program which gave he a cult following.
If you had to pinpoint the one scene that propelled Jennifer Beals into super stardom, that would be the chair dance scene from Flashdance. There Beals on stage at the nightclub seductively danced around a chair, then reclining on it reached up and pulled a chord which dumped several gallons of water on her, completely soaking her for the rest of her dance. The scene was released as a promo clip which appeared everywhere from Entertainment Tonight to Siskle & Ebert, and was used in all the music videos. By the time Flashdance was released everyone had seen the clip, and every red blooded male wanted to see the film it came from. By the time word leaked that Jennifer had been doubled for her dance scenes tens of millions of American males had already fallen for her and had gone to her movie just to see more of her. Paramount wanted a scene that was just as effective for the new movie. Sticking with the water theme, one of the writers saw inspiration in John Everett Millais 1852 painting of Ophelia from Hamlet. Long considered one of arts most erotic pictures, it featured a beautiful girl in a gown floating on her back in a river. The writers came up with a scene where Madsen, an amateur photographer, decides to do a reenactment of the paining using a transparent air mattress and a woodland pond. There she is spotted for the first time by Sheffer who sees her lying silently in the water in her wet dress. There was one problem. Madsen's first film, Class, had her in a bit role as a school girl who has her shirt ripped off by a boy exposing her breasts. Madsen was not fond of the experience, and for the rest of the 80s made sure all her contracts had a strict no nudity clause. She could be in a wet dress, but it could not be completely transparent. Even with that restriction, the scene as filmed worked, and was every bit as erotic as the scene from Flashdance.
The film was given the title Fire with Fire, and there is some speculation that it was named after one of the pop songs used in the film. Still, others claim the film's title had been decided on the first script, and that the song Fire with Fire, sung by Wild Blue, had been written for the movie. The song itself has nothing to do with the film. The finished movie begins with Joe Fisk ( Sheffer ), an inmate at the Ridge County Probation Program Honor Camp, a correctional facility for convicted juvenile delinquents. Since most of the boys were convicted of minor offenses ( see, they were not that bad.. ) the camp was designed as a minor security prison that allows its inmates the privilege of occasionally playing in the woods or going on field trips. Never the less, it is run by a sadistic chief, Boss Duchard ( Polito ). With only two months left on his sentence, Joe wants nothing more than to avoid Duchard, who for some reason does not like Joe. However, during a game of hide and seek, Joe takes an unauthorized shortcut through the woods and back to base. It is there that he first sees Lisa Taylor ( Madsen ) a student at The Immaculate Heart School for Girls, an exclusive Catholic academy where deeply religious parents send their daughters to keep them away from boys. The school, hidden deep in the woods, is itself a prison camp, complete with an electric gate that locks and an armed guard who makes the rounds at night to prevent any girls from attempting to slip out. Lisa is near graduation age, but has just found out her parents want to send her to a finishing school in the even more remote Swiss Alps.
Lisa is laying in a pond posing as Ophelia with a remote controlled camera on the shore. She looks up to see Joe watching her, and Joe immediately runs off. A week later Lisa and another schoolmate have slipped out to spend a day at the movies, which happens to be the regretable Paramount film Friday the 13th part V: A New Beginning. Coincidentally, the camp has scheduled a field trip to take some inmates, including Joe, to the same movie. Lisa sees Joe get off the prison bus, and once in the theater Joe and Lisa spend more time watching each other from a distance than the movie on the screen. Back at the school Lisa hatches a scheme to meet Joe again. During class she suggests to Sister Maria ( Jean Smart ) that they are not doing enough for the local community, and therefore should invite the poor boys from the county prison camp over for a dance. Convincing the nun this is a good idea, the dance is held. For the first time Joe and Lisa are able to talk to each other face to face, and begin to realize they are both madly in love. As a parting gift Lisa gives Joe a photo of her as Ophelia.
In the days that follow Joe and Lisa scheme to rendezvous again, eventually both sneaking out one night and hooking up in an empty crypt where they make love for the first time. Their happiness is short lived when Boss Duchard enters the crypt with a shotgun. He had been secretly watching Joe, waiting for him to slip up. The sherriff arrives, and both kids are taken back to their respective prisons. Joe is scheduled to be sent to the state pen for a ten year stretch while Lisa's parents are flying in to take her away to Switzerland. Joe's friends help him break out of solitary confinement, and after stealing a car he heads to the catholic school where they have locked Lisa in her room. He breaks down her door and together they escape, heading into the mountains where Joe was told by a friend an abandoned cabin awaits. Once again Duchard tracks them down, this time with the intent of killing Joe. Meanwhile the sherriff has also shown up in a helicopter. Both Joe and Lisa are cornered on the edge of a cliff, and rather than being recaptured, jump off into the rapids below. A delighted Duchard calls out to the sherriff that there is no way they survived the fall, and no one will ever find the bodies. But you know that Paramount can't resist a happy ending, so both Joe and Lisa miraculously survive, surfacing inside a cave.
Somewhere along the line Paramount failed miserably at promoting the movie. The video for Wild Blue's Fire with Fire was a standard film promo, with scenes of the band performing on the dance hall set intercut with scenes from the movie. But by 1996 MTV had grown weary of airing movie promo videos, which they saw as free commercials for the studios. The video aired only a couple of times then never again on the network. This was long before Viacom purchased Paramount. Another misstep was when Paramount gave the Ophelia clip to Entertainment Tonight as an exclusive. On the weekend of May 3rd Entertainment Tonight aired the clip on their weekend edition as part of a story called "Is Virginia Madsen All Wet?". The clip was shown in it's entirety, but as this was the weekend show, many stations did not air it. Entertainment Tonight neglected to air the clip on any of their weekday shows, opting to use other clips when doing a story on the movie. In contrast, the dance chair clip from Flashdance had aired not only aired on Entertainment Tonight many times, but on all the movie review shows, and on talk shows where either Beals or Michael Nouri were guests. The Ophelia clip was effective, but too few got to see it outside the movie.
On May 2 Paramount released Blue City, a crime drama staring Brat Packers Judd Nelson and Ally Sheedy. At a production cost of $10 Million it would only make $8 Million during it's run. A week later on May 9th Paramount released Fire with Fire where it made only $1.7 Million on it's opening week. It came in third behind another Alley Sheedy film by another studio, Short Circuit which made $5.3 Million on it's opening week, and Richard Pryor's Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling which moved down to #2 but still made $3 Million. Blue City was in fourth with $1.4 Million while the top 5 was rounded out by The Money Pit, making $1.3 Million, but having made $29 Million so far. A week later Paramount released Top Gun which won the week with a box office of $8 Million. Short Circuit came in second with $4.4 Million, an Alan Alda comedy Sweet Liberty came in third on it's opening week with $3 Million, Jo Jo Dancer in fourth with $2 Million, and still in the top 5 Fire with Fire just barely making $1 million. On May 23 Paramount pulled both Blue City and Fire with Fire from the theaters, giving the screens to Top Gun which increased it's box office to $9 Million, but still came in third to Sylvester Stallone's Cobra with a $15 Million opening week, and Poltergeist II: The Other Side which made $12 Million. A few weeks later Paramount released their next movie, Ferris Bueller's Day Off which would go on to make $70 Million. Top Gun would finished it's run at $350 Million. The strategy of removing Blue City and Fire with Fire from distribution worked. In total, Fire with Fire only made $4 Million. While Paramount had failed to produce the perfect chick flick, they would succeed ten years later when the formula was finally perfected with the movie Titanic ( 1987 ), this time bringing something else to the table that men would like, explosions and destruction. Girls came for the romance, and their dates came for the disaster.
Overall, the 80s had been phenomenally successful for Paramount. Aside from the Indiana Jones, Star Trek and Friday the 13th franchises there were many other successes. Beginning with 1980s American Gigolo, Paramount would release The Accused, Airplane!, An Officer and a Gentleman, Atlantic City, Beverly Hills Cop, Black Rain, Children of a Lesser God, Coming to America, Compromising Positions, Crocodile Dundee, The Dead Zone, The Elephant Man, Fatal Attraction, First Monday in October, Footloose, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Flashdance, 48 Hrs., Gung Ho!, Harlem Nights, Major League, The Naked Gun: From The Files of Police Squad!, Ordinary People, Pet Sematary, Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Pretty in Pink, Ragtime, Reds, S.O.B., Scrooged, Still Smokin', Summer Rental, Terms of Endearment, Top Gun, Trading Places, Witness, U2: Rattle and Hum, The Untouchables, Urban Cowboy, and Young Sherlock Holmes. With so many successes, their other releases became forgotten by the studio. Paramount had their own home video division, and a year after it's short theatrical run Fire with Fire made it's debut on VHS for the rental market. It was also packaged halfhearted with other Paramount films for syndication, often airing at odd hours. From there Paramount basically forgot about the movie. Any chance that it's stars and director could reignite interest in the film faded with time. Duncan Gibbins never went on to be a major director. He had one other film to his credit, Eve of Destruction ( 1991 ). He was killed during the 1993 California wild fires trying to save a stray cat. Had he gone on to be another Speilberg then maybe there would have been interest in his older work. He never reached that potential. Neither Craig Sheffer nor Virginia Madsen became leading Hollywood stars. While both remain active in the business to this day, neither had a breakthrough role that catapulted them into super stardom the way Top Gun had catapulted Tom Cruise.
And with that Fire with Fire has remained elusive over the years. With the 2 million who saw it in the theaters, and who knows how many others bothered to rent or watch it on television, very few had the opportunity to see it. Over the years a modest fan base began to grow gradually from those who caught the film during it's sporadic television airings. Eventually it became one of those movies that sold well on EBay. Still, with all of Paramount's successes, there was little reason for the studio to release the movie on DVD. The death of Duncan Gibbins posed another problem. When smaller films did get released on DVD it was usually after the campaigning of the films director. With no director alive there was no one attached to the movie who was eager to see it on DVD. Whenever representatives from Paramount were asked about the film, their answer was always "We have no current plans to re-release this movie on home video." For fans of the film it seemed hopeless.
Last year an independent label called Olive Films began acquiring DVD rights to some of Paramounts older films from the 40s, 50s and 60s. Somehow this lead to Paramount packaging in under performing films from the 70s and 80s, most of which Olive will be releasing. So far these include The Perfect Weapon, Firstborn, Breaking Glass, Badge 373, Thinner and The Boogens, many of which are debuting on DVD for the first time. And among those movies, Fire with Fire. Now being released amid older classics, Fire with Fire has the opportunity to find an audience, as well as an opportunity for those who loved the movie to get a decent print of the film.
While researching for this article I discover enough material for a sub article on the use of the image of Ophelia in other movies. You can find that article here..