If you’re in the mood for an über-trashy eighties teen film, look no further than Tuff Turf. This film, which was directed by Children of the Corn’s Fritz Kiersch and released in 1985 to general antipathy, is the best kind of trash, populated by attractive and game young actors, two of whom—James Spader and Robert Downey, Jr.—would go on to become titans of the entertainment industry. It boasts a comes-out-of-nowhere great soundtrack with tracks from Jim Carroll, Marianne Faithfull, and Lene Lovich under the direction of composer Jonathan Elias, who produced albums for Duran Duran and Grace Jones and co-wrote MTV’s iconic Moon Landing theme.The film has a rip-roaring plot involving a showdown between a rebellious preppy transplanted from Connecticut (played by Spader at his coldest and sleekest) and a rough-and-tumble Los Angeles street gang in half shirts and leather pants (played by a bunch of agreeable dudes you’ve never heard of). Perhaps best of all, it features a slew of gorgeously trashy fashions (I repeat: half shirts and leather pants). For aficionados of so-terrible-they’re-wonderful eighties teen fashions, this film is an embarrassment of riches. Here’s an overview of some of the film’s greatest fashion trends:
#1: Chains, Chains, and More Chains
You have to admire a teen-flick heroine who treats Home Depot as a jewelry store. Chains are the signature look of tough girl Frankie (future Real Housewives of Beverly Hills problem child Kim Richards, shockingly good here), first introduced while setting some hapless bloke up for a mugging at the hands of her no-good boyfriend Nick (Paul Mones) and his gang of largely decorative half-shirt-wearing hoodlums. Frankie is a walking wall of short-lived eighties fashion trends—the skinny headband worn low across her forehead, the ludicrously mismatched oversized earrings, the crimped hair that falls down to her waist—but her lengths of chains, worn as necklaces, belts, bracelets, and earrings, send a clear signal that it’s not a good idea to mess with her.
#2: Suspenders with Tank Tops
Then there’s the divine chaos factor of the stylistic choices of Frankie’s best pal Ronnie, played by Repo Man’s Olivia Barash. This is one of Ronnie’s tamer outfits: a hot pink tank top with suspenders over it. It’s cute! It coordinates nicely with her floppy lavender hair bow.
#3: Pumps and Ankle Socks
And here’s the bottom half of Ronnie’s outfit: Black jeans with the cuffs rolled, paired with pumps. And pink ankle socks. Bless you, Ronnie, you are a treasure.
#4: Gaudy Plastic Baubles
It’s my girl Ronnie again. Here she is, waiting to give the green light to Nick that the coast is clear to mug the poor schmuck Frankie targeted in the opening sequence. She’s swilling a Bud, because Ronnie is a classy dame. Ronnie’s equivalent of Frankie’s chains are her bright plastic baubles, which she wears anywhere she can fit them. She’s got plastic globes dangling from her earlobes, she’s got weird colorful plastic toys strung on a chain around her neck…
…she’s got unidentifiable plastic bits dangling from a plastic cord bracelet, which coordinates nicely with the ersatz Swatch on her other wrist. I wore a lot of plastic jewelry in the eighties because it was cheap, colorful, and abundant, but Ronnie puts my efforts to shame.
Here she is with her chum Feather (the late Catya Sassoon, daughter of Vidal), sporting more multicolored dangly plastic bits at her ears and around her throat. Ronnie is also showing off our next trend, which is…
#5: Ghastly Print Shirts
Our protagonist Morgan, the avenging preppy played by James Spader, mostly sticks to timeless wardrobe staples throughout the film—tailored button-down shirts, cable-knit sweaters, Ray-Bans, leather bomber jackets—so his fashion picks will go largely ignored here, but his buddy Jimmy, played by Robert Downey, Jr., sports some splendid outfits, including this terrible patterned shirt. I’ve never been able to quite figure out the print, and I could be wrong, but I think it might be emblazoned with… caricatures of Sherlock Holmes? Not sure, but that looks like a deerstalker cap. Dunno. It’s hideous and yet fabulous; we all wore shirts like this throughout the eighties, and we were happy about it, thank you very much. A couple years after shooting this film, Downey and Spader would again star together, playing a hooker and his pimp, in the milquetoast film adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’s seamy, sordid bestseller Less Than Zero, and then Spader would go on to win Best Actor at Cannes for Sex, Lies, and Videotape before racking up a gaggle of Emmys for his television work, and Downey would get an Oscar nomination for Chaplin before becoming, by 2015, the highest-paid actor in Hollywood, so, y’know, they’ve done okay for themselves. And it all started here with a terrible shirt: Tuff Turf marks Downey’s first significant screen appearance.
(I own the screenplay-to-book novelization of Tuff Turf, because I love this film very much, and for the record, the book describes Jimmy’s outfit thusly: “Jimmy was all dressed up for the first day of school in his favorite screaming turquoise shirt with the Jetsons on it, and a well-worn pair of cuffed black 501s.” Decent guess, but those clearly aren’t the Jetsons.)
Ghastly print button-down shirts pop up on several occasions throughout the film, including a scene in which one is worn by the guitarist for Jim Carroll, the legendary Basketball Diaries author and punk pioneer, during a gig at a warehouse, at which Morgan manages to seduce Frankie out from under Nick’s nose. A synchronized dance number ensues, then the film awkwardly turns into West Side Story for a few plagiarized lines of dialogue, and then Nick beats the crap out of Morgan and steals his Porsche, which Morgan had himself stolen earlier in the evening, and then Nick gets arrested for grand theft auto, so everything works out for the best. This is a brilliant film, really, terrible print shirts and all.
#6: Accessorizing with Handcuffs
At the club, where fresh-faced high school student Jimmy is inexplicably serving as the drummer in Jim Carroll’s band, a shirtless and sweaty Jimmy wears black-and-red leather bondage pants and a makeshift belt made from dueling pairs of handcuffs slung low across his groin, paired with sunglasses worn as a necklace. It’s a whole lot of look, but Jimmy pulls it off with moderate aplomb. Later in the film, a darling pair of miniature handcuffs is also sported dangling from the earlobe of Nick’s henchman Mickey (Panchito Gómez), who is also wearing a crapload of necklaces and bracelets. You know how Coco Chanel once famously said, “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off”? Every character in this film has blithely ignored Coco’s advice.
#7: Freakishly Wide, Low Belts
Feather, Ronnie, and Frankie hit the club at the warehouse, looking like The Go-Go’s after a bender. Actually, “Feather, Ronnie, and Frankie” sounds like the names of the members of an entirely plausible doo-wop girl group in the sixties; if you told me the Shirelles or the Shangri-Las consisted of three women named Feather, Ronnie, and Frankie, I’d probably nod in agreement and pretend I knew exactly what you were going on about. Anyway, Frankie has chosen to accessorize her minidress with a low, wide belt, while Feather has chosen the same path with her leopard-print leggings and powder blue sleeveless cropped turtleneck, which she has paired with matching gloves. They both look fabulous; to this day, it’s rare that I don a dress without thinking how it could be vastly improved with the addition of a really wide belt, worn low over my hips.
In the above image, you can see Ronnie’s full outfit from behind (she’s standing next to a dude wearing suspenders over a tank top, naturally enough), in which she’s wearing multiple petticoats beneath her skirt. She’ll sport several variations on this retro look throughout the film; it’s not mentioned much these days, but the fifties had a surprisingly strong influence on eighties fashions—saddle shoes, penny loafers, cuffed jeans, leather jackets, letter sweaters, crewnecks, cardigans, petticoats. Anyway, Ronnie, old-fashioned girl that she is, digs petticoats.
#9: Preppy Chic
Many elements of Tuff Turf fail to hold up to rigorous scrutiny. Exhibit A: Morgan’s backstory. After getting expelled from numerous prep schools in Connecticut for general bad behavior, Morgan moves with his upper-crust family to a rough neighborhood in Los Angeles, where his once-wealthy father is forced to give up his job as a real estate tycoon and eke out a living driving a taxi. As mentioned before, Morgan sports a variety of timeless wardrobe staples throughout the film—he rarely ventures outside of his white button-down shirts and his white cable-knit sweaters—but, to his credit, he wears them well. There’s a minor side plot about how Morgan has, in his parents’ eyes, failed to live up to the preppy example set by his overachieving older brother Brian; Brian dresses similarly to Morgan in preppy staples, yet somehow fails to pull them off nearly as skillfully. It’s characterization via wardrobe: Brian, we quickly surmise from his inability to look effortlessly chic in a bulky sweater, is something of a douche.
#10: Singularly Unconvincing Trashy-to-Preppy Makeovers
Morgan smuggles his new friends into a swanky Beverly Hills country club by giving Frankie and Ronnie a fast makeover to tone down their innate skeeziness: He gives Frankie his sunglasses and instructs her to throw his cable-knit sweater over her belted mini dress, he gives Ronnie one of Jimmy’s terrible print shirts to belt over her petticoats, and voilà! They’re transformed into instant country club material. The quartet descends on the club to bogart caviar and lobster and stuff baguettes down their pants; Ronnie gives helpful blowjob tips to a gaggle of riveted debutantes, Jimmy fakes a mysterious European accent, and Morgan brings the whole damn film to a crashing halt by singing a heartfelt power ballad to Frankie. Tuff Turf isn’t the only eighties B-movie to include a sequence in which a snooty country club is overrun by gleeful agents of chaos—hello, Girls Just Wanna Have Fun—but it might be the best.
Tuff Turf is widely available streaming or on DVD, and multiple copies of the whole damn film are up on YouTube, so nobody has any excuse for not seeing this cinematic gem.