Sunday, January 4, 2009

Up the Creek (1984)

Directed by Robert Butler
Starring Tim Matheson
Rated R
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"Down liver, don't you get it? That's Japanese for down river!"

In the middle of the night, four feckless slobs from a low-rent university are dragged from their beds and corralled into a dark, dank boiler room, where they are propositioned by molester-mustachioed Dean Burch (Magnum PI's John Hillerman). Seems the dean is tired of his college's bottom-rung status. He just wants to fuckin' win something, already. The assembled schlubs are his bottom four students: overconfident cocksman Bob McGraw (Animal House's Tim Matheson, clearly channeling mid 70's Hunter Thompson), near-mute overeater Gonzer (Flounder himself, Stephen Furst, who was making a tidy living at that point playing fat maniacs), twitchy nerd Irwin (Sandy Helberg), and constantly-bewildered Max (Dan Monahan, best known as Pee Wee in the Porky's films). It is unclear why Burch would pick his least-likely-to-succeed students for this, but he wants them to enter a collegiate white water rafting race. They know nothing about rafts or racing, but the dean promises them degrees in whatever subject they desire if they win (Gonzer: "Even Home Ec?"), which is incentive enough to figure it out.

Our heroes climb into a rickety van and head to the river. Along the way, Matheson launches into his first of many inappropriately literary monologues. As he swills a Bloody Mary and chomps on a cigarillo, he explains their chances of winning to a nervous Irwin.

"Everybody's got a chance, kid," he tells him. "Look at you, for example. You're skinny, uncoordinated, you've got a yellow streak down your back a mile wide. You're anemic, you dress like a creep, and you've got the personality of a mayo and baloney on white. You're the kind of guy most people wouldn't give the time of day to. But that doesn't mean you don't have a chance."
I'm not sure how effective that is as a peptalk, but it at least sounded rousing.

They arrive at the river and meet their various allies and foes. There's military nuts, bouncy coeds, golden-haired preppies, and even a bunch of greasers who look like they got lost on their way to the Sha Na Na concert.
"The competition is weirder than I thought," notes our man Bob.
Of course, the preppies have rigged the race, and the ROTC screwballs are quite willing to blow up their rivals, so the usual 80's style mayhem ensues. Heather (the unforgettable blonde b-goddess Jennifer Runyon) is at first a preppy-moll, but is almost instantly seduced to the slob-side by smooth-talking McGraw, who manages to bed her the same day they meet.
"Tell me, was that as good for you as it was for me?" He asks her, as they cuddle in post-coital bliss.
She shakes her head. "No." Tough crowd!

The second half of Up the Creek is taken up with the race. Our heroes are sabotaged, beaten, and kidnapped, but with pluck, humor, friendship, and a Charades-playing dog, the scrappy SOBs endure. But will they win the race and defeat the rich, pompous, Dockers-wearing douchebags? Crazily enough, in 1984, we really did believe they could, man. We really did.

Although it is all formula - Up the Creek pilfers from Stripes and Animal House without shame - this is one of the most consistently entertaining and easy-to-watch movies of the 80's teen-sex cycle. The chemistry between the leads is obvious, and it looks like they're all having a blast. The actual race sequences are fantastic, dropping you right in the middle of some pretty hairy moments, and the mashing of actors and professional racers is pretty seamless. The running gags are actually funny (drink orders are always for grandpa-style concoctions: Brandy Alexanders, Old Fashioned-s, etcs), the dialogue is sharp and witty ("Here's to mediocrity!"), and the music is surprisingly good for a mid-80's film, including a great pop metal theme song by Cheap Trick.
The nudity is sparse, but memorable. There's a brief naked RV party in the opening scene, a topless massage, a blonde chick (Lori Sutton from Night Patrol and Malibu Express) who rips her top open to rally the crowd before the race, and a dean-banging coed (Peggy Trentini) who whips her superjugs out moments before the house she's in blows to kingdom come.
"I think maybe your toilet is overflowing," she says, right before a mountain of mud splinters the room, in what has to be the most expensive gag in the history of teen-sex flicks.

In summation: Up the Creek is pretty swell. Director Butler was already a 24 year TV vet at this point, having directed everything from 60's vintage Batman and Star Trek to iconic 80's cop show Hill Street Blues, so some bullshit about a raft race was kids' stuff to him. He retired from the biz of show ten or so years ago, and is now either laughing all the way to the bank or bobbing away on a yacht somewhere. His actors have also gone on to lucrative careers: I don't think I've ever watched anything else Tim Matheson is done, but we all know who he is, so he must be doing pretty good. Stephen Furst has been steadily acting and directing, mostly in kid-ertainment. He's not fat anymore, but seems happy enough. Dan Monahan is taking it easy and raking in the Porky's royalties. Sandy Helberg's producing. And what of our knockout lead actress? Jennifer Runyon's alpha-blonde, Marilyn Monroe-meets-Erika Eleniak looks and easy grace made her an instantly recognizable fan favorite, and she made a decent 13 year run of it, appearing in a host of sitcoms (Charles in Charge, Who's the Boss, Valerie, etc.), before landing the plum role of Cindy Brady in the 1988 TV-film A Very Brady Christmas. The goofy holiday special was such a success that a reunion TV show was rushed into production and, smelling long-green, the real Cindy, Susan Olsen, stepped back into the fray. So, Jen was out. She did a host of one-off spots on various series afterwards and did one final film: 1993's dinos-on-the-loose romp Carnosaur. The film was a Roger Corman production and, soon enough, so was her life. She married Roger's son, Todd. She has not acted since. We quietly await her comeback.

I leave you with this parting shot from Mr. Matherson, who was peeling himself off of the lovely Jennifer Runyon at the time.
"As soon as this is over, as soon as someone has won this damn thing, I'd like to think I could jump on you again, sometime."
You and me both, sir. You and me both.

Availability: Surprisingly, Up the Creek is a bitch to find. There's an out of print DVD and some very dusty VHS copies floating around. Or you could always scour the internet.
Buy Up the Creek at Amazon.

Clip: Up the Creek opening, including Cheap Trick's theme

-Ken McIntyre


  1. Love the blog (hate the white on black type, though -- hard on the peepers). Matheson is still going strong. I watched a two-hour pilot he did for USA about a girl searching for her long lost father only to find out he's a professional assassin. Matheson plays the dad and is partners with Seymour Cassel, Ivan Sergei and Christine Adams as a black, bi, Brit. Kinda fun in a wacky USA kinda way.

  2. One of my favorite components of Matheson's career has to be his short lived 1989 Bizarro World "hostile takeover" of the (then in free fall) National Lampoon. He sunk a ton of $ into the deal & it never really panned out, but the poetry of it all can't be missed, right?

    While he's essentially vilified for this in Matty Simmons' "If You Don't Buy This Book, We'll Kill This Dog!" Lampoon bio (if you haven't read it, skip it & re-read Josh Karp's excellent "A Futile and Stupid Gesture" or Dennis Perrin's "Mr Mike" instead), I'm instinctively drawn to the notion of Otter running the ship regardless of the outcome. Given the subsequent rebranding of the Lampoon as an all purpose "college lifestyle" and more generic humor machine over the years I dunno if any of the possible outcomes would really have been more desirable over another.

    Oh yeah, and on the "personal anecdote" side of things, my wife worked on some made for TV flick he was in that was shot here in Tucson (w/ Jenny Garth) and said that he was a very nice fellow. Okay, not MUCH of an anecdote I'll grant you, yes.


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