Weekend at Bernie’s might be the most misunderstood film I know. It was a hit in 1989, despite bad reviews, and has had staying power since: the image of Andrew McCarthy and Jonathan Silverman propping up Bernie’s lifeless body is seared onto the cultural memory, one of those iconic cinematic images that has been parodied and homaged and referenced enough to take on a life of its own beyond the film itself. It’s a very famous film, is the point – though not exactly acclaimed – but when I watched it, I kind of felt like the first person to ever see it.
Here’s what I assumed Weekend at Bernie’s would be like: a extremely dumb, extremely wacky 1980s comedy, in the vein of Porky’s or a National Lampoon movie, that is probably not very good but has a kind of charm that not very good films from the 1980s tend to have. I knew the basic plot – two guys pretend another guy, Bernie, is alive, while staying at his place for the weekend. I assumed – either because it’s how it turns out in any given Weekend at Bernie’s-inspired TV episode, or because of the existence of Weekend at Bernie’s II – that Bernie wasn’t really dead. That our heroes found him unconscious and panicked, but, by the end of the film, Bernie would wake up, and we’d arrive at our happy ending.
Weekend at Bernie’s is something much stranger, and much more interesting.
Part 1 – Do we look like the kind of people who could kill someone?
I’m not very conservative when it comes to genre classification. There can be a tendency to define the less prestigious genres in particular unnecessarily narrowly. Some of this is to attempt to lift a good film out of a “bad” genre by reclassifying it (it’s not a horror, it’s a thriller; it’s not a comedy, it’s a comedy-drama) but more of it is defining a film’s genre by its marketing more than by the film itself – the Wikipedia page has already been written by the time anybody sees it, and the gulf between a film’s tone and the tone of its trailers has to be pretty gaping for anybody to comment on it.
I think there’s value in challenging assigned genres, to not only push against what marketing departments dictate but against the delineating lines of genre itself, against the implicit distinction between art that is serious and worthwhile and art that is not. Gone Girl is a comedy. The Hateful Eight is a horror (and an Agatha Christie mystery). The Disaster Artist is a romcom. Thelma and Louise, Zombieland and Taxi Driver are all Westerns.
That said: is Weekend at Bernie’s a horror film?
Richard (Jonathan Silverman) and Larry (Andrew McCarthy) are two low-level employees at a Manhattan insurance company. Richard is straight-laced and aspirational, Larry is party-hardy and perpetually late. After discovering a discrepancy in the company’s books, they get invited to spend the weekend at their boss Bernie’s beach house. Bernie plans to have Larry and Richard killed, because he was the one stealing from the company and he can’t be exposed, but the mafia guys he hires end up killing him instead.
Larry and Richard don’t know about any of that, and they arrive to find Bernie dead. Panicking about what to do when a party drifts in, they watch as multiple people carry on whole conversations with Bernie without noticing he’s dead. They decide to keep up the ruse, mostly so they can have a fun weekend at the beach uninterrupted by police investigations. This includes parading Bernie’s corpse around as it gathers flies and allowing Bernie’s girlfriend to commit necrophilia.
(The trailer and many reviews imply that they pretend Bernie is alive because without him around they’re going to be assassinated, but Richard and Larry don’t know anything about the murder plot until the third act. Richard is mostly going along with it because he wants the chance to get with his love interest, Gwen, this weekend. Larry needs no motivation.)
I don’t for a second mean that the premise of Weekend at Bernie’s is so disturbing that it renders it not only a comedic failure but something grotesque and disturbing. Bernie’s is a comedy, and a very funny one. But it’s also grotesque and disturbing – not in spite of its comedy, and not because of any failure in its comedy, but operating in tandem with it. Stephen Colbert always says that you can’t laugh and be afraid at the same time, and in a way that’s true – one of laughter’s primary functions is to signal to a group that there isn’t danger – but they’re also such closely related reactions. There are plenty of films that split audiences down the middle between finding them bone-chilling and hilarious (Eraserhead is an example). I love horror-comedy films in part because of how they play with that connection between humour and horror, between screams and laughter.
That is what Weekend at Bernie’s does: it coats 1980s comedy sheen on what is at heart a dark, dark film. There’s a visceral horror at not just the lugging around of the corpse, but at the casualness with which it is done. At one point, Bernie’s body falls off the back of the speedboat and “surfs” behind it. When they realise what happened and pull Bernie back onto the boat, Larry exclaims “Oh my God!” and pushes the body away from him.
“What?” Richard asks.
You’d think it would be something to do with the decaying human body. It’s not.
“He’s lost my sunglasses,” Larry explains.
The film Bernie’s is closest in tone to is Martin Scorsese’s After Hours, another dark comedy that finds humour and horror by putting yuppies in terrible situations and watching them react callously. In After Hours, Paul (Griffin Dunne) attempts to get home from SoHo, where he’d gone to sleep with a woman but changed his mind after inferring that she might have burns on her legs, and goes through a series of misadventures. In Leighton Grist’s book on Martin Scorsese’s films from 1978 to 1999, he places After Hours in what he dubs the “yuppie nightmare cycle,” a group of films made in the 1980s that range from Blue Velvet to Fatal Attraction to Desperately Seeking Susan. What defines the yuppie nightmare cycle is the combination of elements of screwball comedy and film noir to juxtapose the materially wealthy, conformist and normative with the marginal, spontaneous and subversive. The yuppie nightmare cycle, Grist writes, “suggests the presence of tensions beneath the confident, public, ardently patriarchal facade of mid-1980s USA.”
Weekend at Bernie’s doesn’t fit within the yuppie nightmare cycle – aside from structural differences, it came out in 1989 – but it feels rooted in a similar tradition, not only in finding horror on the underside of nice, safe parts of society, but playing around in that horror with a sense of heightened reality, twisting it into something stranger, recasting familiar, comforting images and sounds in a new light. It wouldn’t be exactly true to say that what Blue Velvet does for Roy Orbison’s ‘In Dreams’, Weekend at Bernie’s does for slapstick, but they’re not as dissimilar as you might expect. They both create a collision between the warm feeling of familiarity and recognition with a creepy, unsettling feeling: something as pure and lovely as slapstick, a childhood favourite form of comedy, but with a dead body. Like Reanimator, Evil Dead or Peter Jackson’s early splatter films, Weekend at Bernie’s threads the line between slapstick and body horror, blurring that line so effectively that slapstick and body horror start to feel like the same thing.
One of the big differences between Bernie’s and the yuppie nightmare cycle is this: in After Hours, Paul feels like he’s in a nightmare. In Bernie’s, Larry and Richard don’t have a shred of awareness: they react so casually to abject horror that their reactions become, in themselves, part of the horror. Larry and Richard are trapped in a nightmare, but not their own.
When they eventually try to explain what’s going on to Richard’s love interest, Gwen, the contrast in her reaction from theirs is gold. Larry drags Bernie’s body down the stairs by his legs, and when Gwen’s eyes widen in shock, Larry is exasperated when he pulls Bernie’s head up by his hair and goes, “It’s just Bernie!”
“Look at us! Do we look like the kind of people who could kill someone?” Richard asks Gwen. The answer, of course, is yes.
In an article for Birth.Movies.Death, Mustafa Yasar makes the case that Bernie’s works as a comedy because of its “maintaining a ‘light’, ‘inoffensive’, ‘comedic’, or ‘informal’ tone,” only really taking seriously the friendship between the leads: “The darker aspects of Weekend at Bernie’s can be considered humorous and fun without necessarily offending the audience’s own attitudes towards death, while the more personal depiction of the lead characters’ relationships allows the audience to relate themselves to Richard and Larry in a way that makes their actions more palatable.”
This isn’t an inherently bad argument. It would be a fine argument to make about Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, where our personal, fourth-wall breaking relationship with Ferris helps keep the audience from thinking he’s an asshole. But it’s a crazy argument to make about Weekend at Bernie’s, a film where the main characters’ actions are beyond sociopathic, where a character plays Monopoly with a fly-ridden corpse that he moves with a set of pulleys of his own design.
The actions of the characters in Bernie’s are so bizarre and extreme that it would be impossible to lessen it with a light tone – which is why the film doesn’t do that. If, as Yasar writes, the cynical or horrific parts of the film just aren’t there in the execution, if all of that is “merely setup for the movie’s central joke, which is the boys’ maintenance of the facade that Bernie’s corpse is still alive, and the silly things that result from their efforts,” why doesn’t the film have the cop-out “wasn’t really dead” ending? Why doesn’t it introduce the vaguely reasonable motivation for pretending Bernie is alive (protecting themselves from the murder plot) much earlier in the film?
Weekend at Bernie’s is a pitch-black horror-comedy – if it was anything lighter, it would be a total failure.
Part 2 – My old man worked hard. All they did was give him more work.
“My film school was an abattoir. I sometimes see a film and think, ‘This guy has no idea how real people live,’” said Ted Kotcheff, the director of Weekend at Bernie’s, “It was a tremendous boon for me, working at a Canadian slaughterhouse, and at Goodyear Tire & Rubber. When I went to work in film, I knew about human beings’ real lives, both working and middle class.”
I’m not that big an auteur guy, but it’s worth talking for a moment about the director and screenwriter of Weekend at Bernie’s. There’s Kotcheff, who before Bernie’s made numerous critically acclaimed films, including First Blood and Wake in Fright, a film that Scorsese said “left him speechless” when he first saw it and which he chose as the classic film to screen at Cannes in 2009. Then there’s screenwriter Robert Klane, a novelist who combined black comedy and taboo-busting farce to “capture the sheer unfairness of life”. I think that pretty much any piece of art should be taken seriously on its own terms, but even if I didn’t, there’s plenty of evidence that Bernie’s was probably a personal film made with intent by talented people, not a committee-think cash-grab from the fourth least-worst idea in the pitch meeting.
Not every film has to have something to say about society or the world. Free Fire was one of my favourite films this year, and I loved it in no small part because it was pure cinema without pretence, with no higher purpose than being a live-action cartoon. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to understand what a film is trying to say, especially if we’re doing so because it looks silly on the surface.
About ten minutes into Weekend at Bernie’s, I said, “Is this film about Reaganomics?”
In that Birth.Movies.Death article, there’s a list of things that Weekend at Bernie’s could be about but isn’t, because it has no interest in any of those things. It’s a reminder that for every time someone is furious that a comedy has nothing higher to say, there’s someone else who thinks a comedy is incapable of being about anything. But for a moment, it almost gets it: “that none of the people Bernie interacts with on a regular basis notice he’s dead is a very cynical view of the transience of human relationships in the upper-class, especially when paired with the hedonistic tendencies the beach community displays.”
In a one-star review, Roger Ebert said that the problem with dead body films in general and Bernie’s in particular is that “In order for them not to notice [that Bernie is dead], they must be incredibly dense.” There was a similar gag in Seinfield: “Just because he’s wearing sunglasses, he looks alive?” It would be a fair criticism of a wackier, slighter version of Weekend of Bernie’s, that took its premise straightforwardly enough to not question the apparent inability of any character to distinguish alive from dead. It’s a criticism of Bernie’s based on the premise alone.
The reason nobody notices that Bernie is dead isn’t because they’re dumb. It’s because they’re completely self-absorbed. That is, in fact, the joke: a collection of upper-class archetypes wander into a beachside mansion – academics, businessmen, partiers – and fail to notice their host is dead. They talk at his body, and if he were alive and could reply, they would zone out until they got to talk again. It’s also about the emptiness of Bernie’s life: his supposedly fantastic life is only about the appearance of things, and when you look beyond the appearance, the fact is that his friends cared so little about him that none of them would notice if he died right in front of them.
One of the first scenes in Bernie’s is of Richard and Larry going to work on a weekend. The heat is sweltering, and the air-conditioning is turned off.
“We are going to be here our whole lives,” Larry says.
“Yeah, I am afraid so,” Richard agrees, hard at work on the papers in front of him.
Larry and Richard are, broadly speaking, two types of aspirational yuppies. Although they’re far from blue collar, they’re obviously paid a pittance: Larry’s apartment is, by his own description, small, dark, hot, in a high-crime area, and infested with cockroaches:
LARRY (about Bernie’s car): Do you know how much it costs to park a car in Manhattan every month? More than my rent.
RICHARD: I mean, it’s only fair. His car is a bit bigger than your apartment.
Richard, meanwhile, is still living with his parents. He’s saving until he can move out. All he has to do “is just keep setting [his] goals and working hard.”
Richard believes in the American Dream – that if you work hard enough, you will ascend to the top of the corporate ladder. Larry knows better.
“All of this could be yours, if you set your goals and work hard,” Richard tells Larry when they arrive at Bernie’s mansion.
“My old man worked hard,” Larry says, “All they did was give him more work.”
Larry knows that the system isn’t fair, that to get ahead you need to cheat and scheme and screw people over. And he intends to do so.
Of the two, Larry is more overtly monstrous – he’s the one who decides to pretend Bernie is alive, he’s the one who operates the pulleys and barely flinches at close contact with a corpse. It would be easy to think Richard – principled, hard-working Richard – is a susceptible rube, going along with it against his better judgment.
Larry does push Richard, but he’s pushing an open door. One of the earliest established facts about Richard is that he’s a compulsive liar: the first thing he says to his love interest, for no reason, is that his aunt is sick. When she asks after the aunt later, Richard says she’s died. He doesn’t even have an aunt. He later lies to her about having his own place, which eventually descends to an absurd and unnecessary lie where he pretends that his father, who goes to the fridge during the night, is actually his butler.
If the yuppie nightmare cycle contrasts opulence and poverty, Bernie’s does something else: it puts the underpaid, aspirational yuppie into the world of upper-class wealth, and sees what they’d be willing to do to stay there.
Horror is one of the most political film genres, because when a film expects you to fear something, it is subtextually setting out an agenda. Not always, obviously, but if we’re calling Bernie’s a horror film, it’s worth thinking about the politics of that horror. There’s the obvious fact of the dead body, and especially the crude manipulation of the body in a caricature of life, and how that neither-dead-nor-alive space is right where so much of horror lives. But Bernie isn’t the film’s monster – not really. Richard and Larry are.
Right after Richard asks Gwen if they “look like the kind of people who could kill someone”, he clarifies: “Do I look like the kind of person who could kill someone?” The answer is still yes, and then he glasses a guy over the head just to prove it.
Larry and Richard fit into a hero archetype of their era: scrappy little guys trying to make it. The idea of material wealth as a reward at the end of a film wasn’t exactly weird or uncomfortable in the 1980s – Back to the Future does exactly that. Bernie’s is, in part, a deconstruction of that hero type, whose mistreatment by his employer is only unfair because he’s the hero and doesn’t “deserve” it. In the words of Star Trek, we “don’t want to stop the exploitation, we want to find a way to become the exploiters.”
Richard discovers a massive discrepancy in the company books, and he and Larry go to Bernie, their boss, to let him know. It’s very explicitly about it being their chance to make it. Even though they’re the ones who have worked extra hard to find this important information (or, at least, Richard has), they quickly volunteer to work late or work weekends, just to make a good impression. Bernie invites them to his beach house for Labour Day weekend, and there’s a wonderful irony in not just Bernie’s obliviousness to the significance of that but in Larry and Richard’s obliviousness to it. Labour Day, a day designed to celebrate the American labour movement, has devolved into not just another holiday but a day specifically for the exploitation of retail workers, and here, Richard and Larry celebrate the idea of working on not just a weekend, but on Labour Day weekend. After all, this could be their big break.
The all-pervasiveness of the corporate world runs throughout Bernie’s. When Bernie approaches his mafia contacts about whacking Richard and Larry, the mob boss explains that they’re a corporation now. When Richard and Gwen go on a romantic walk to a lighthouse, Richard asks if there’s a lighthouse keeper. “No,” Gwen tells him, “It’s all automated now.” Gwen herself is a summer intern, and it’s implicit that’s as a result of her wealthy parents’ friendship with Bernie (they, too, have a house by the beach).
“A little brownnosing, ass kissing, to work our way up that corporate ladder,” Larry sneers at Richard, “Why can’t you be a lazy shit like I am?”
Part 3 – Lawrence, you done real good
I’ve never been a big fan of “narrative punishment” as a concept. It seems simplistic and overly neat, to me, that a character must be punished within the story for the bad things they do, or else the narrative endorses their behaviour. Or vice versa: that if something bad happens to a character, it must be punishment for their previous actions.
The whole concept of narrative punishment leads to reductive takeaways from all kinds of films. The Wolf of Wall Street must think Jordan Belfort is great, because his wealth ensures that prison isn’t really a punishment so much as a holiday resort where he gets to play tennis. But the lack of punishment is part of the film’s point – you are supposed to be angry that he gets away with it.
On the other hand, there’s the assertion that no woman has ever had sex in a horror film and survived. This seems mostly based on Halloween, which is fair enough, in that teenagers who have sex in that film get murdered usually soon after, and the surviving Final Girl doesn’t have sex. But even still, it isn’t really about “punishing” teens, and Michael Myers is far from a righteous avenger. Halloween is mostly about how horror is native to suburbia, not external to it. I’ve probably seen more horror films self-consciously subvert this trope than straightforwardly execute it.
But if you’re a hardcore believer in narrative punishment, you’re probably not going to like the ending of Weekend at Bernie’s. At the very least, you’ll take it as an assertion that it is a light wacky comedy. The police arrive, and not only are Larry and Richard not arrested – for several counts of violent assault, kidnapping, and whatever felony what they did with Bernie’s body comes under – but Larry gets his picture taken shaking the policeman’s hand. He pesters the cameraman (presumably from the newspaper) to take the photo a couple more times, to get it perfect. Richard gets the girl, somehow. I guess because it turns out he wasn’t lying this time, just desecrating a body. Richard, Gwen and Larry sit on the beach, reflecting on their adventure. Richard is going to stay at Gwen’s for a few days, and Larry is going to stay over at Bernie’s: “I hear the party Saturday night is better than Friday, actually.”
RICHARD: Well Lawrence, you done good. You done real good. I’m proud of you.
LARRY: Yeah, I did okay, huh? Surprised myself. You did great, Rich.
Bernie’s body is knocked from its stretcher, and it slides down to the beach, sitting perfectly behind them. For the first time, they react with appropriate horror and run away. Over the credits, a fun song plays, and a little kid piles sand on Bernie’s body.
I don’t think Bernie’s is the goofy eighties comedy you probably remember it as. But what makes Bernie’s brilliant is how it uses the form of the goofy eighties comedy to reveal something dark at its heart. Richard tells Larry he “done good” and it feels like a moment imported from another film, probably The Secret of My Success. It’s a facsimile of a happy ending. Our heroes have been rewarded, in spite of or because of the crimes committed, and they get to pat themselves on the back, confident in what they’ve always known but have now been reassured of by authority: that they did nothing wrong.
Bernie’s asks us how far we’re willing to take our identification with the aspirational yuppie, the archetype of young-adult America in the 1980s, by juxtaposing the trappings of that kind of film with the callousness and self-obsession that are the necessary conditions and products of ambition. The juxtaposition of the kid burying the dead body in the sand and the fun happy song from the start of the film – from before the weird dark heart of the film was revealed – is a delightful mix of funny and creepy.
There are a lot of films that exist in the culture only through references. They’re a shorthand, not a piece of art in themselves. You can bluff having seen them based on the information available through osmosis. You probably won’t get around to watching it, because it couldn’t have any surprises in store, and isn’t even supposed to be very good. Weekend at Bernie’s is one of those films.
So if a film as thoroughly osmosis’d as Weekend at Bernie’s could turn out to be a horror-comedy about the perils of Reaganomics, maybe some more films could do with a second look. You never know what you might find.