Up The Creek (1984) – A Review

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A review of the 1984 river rafting comedy Up the Creek, starring Tim Matheson, Jennifer Runyon, Stephen Furst and Dan Monahan, about four misfit college students must win a rafting race

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“What is this? A meeting of the assholes of America?”

Four college students get ordered to redeem their embarrassing college’s reputation by winning a rafting race. In exchange for winning a shiny first place medal that the college can brag about, the four will be granted college degrees.

Now all this group of party hardy pals have to do is beat the competition, which turns out to be Ivy League bullies who don’t plan on playing fair and a group of military cadets that are ready to attack! Maybe between comedic run-ins with their adversaries, the leader of the pack can make some time with the pretty blonde coed.

If this sounds like a bit of an odd premise, don’t worry! It’s standard fare for a 1980s teen sex comedy!

Up-the-Creek-1984-movie-film-poster-comedyUp the Creek has a lot of familiar faces from comedies during the time. Tim Matheson (Animal House), Jennifer Runyon (Ghostbusters). Stephen Furst (Animal House, Midnight Madness), Julia Montgomery (Revenge of the Nerds) Dan Monahan (Porky’s), Jeff East (who played the teen Superman in the 1978 original film, this time he’s got blonde hair and is playing a rich, pompous bad guy).

For extra measure, toss in James Sikking as the uptight, nefarious middle-aged villain and a special appearance by John Hillerman who plays the Dean of Lepetomane University!

Not only will the actors faces ring a bell, but the characters, story and humor will seem very familiar too. Up the Creek is almost a perfect encapsulation of all the things you imagine a 80s teen sex comedy would be. All those vital components you expect to see. The wise cracking hero, the nerdy friend, pretty girls with teased hair, the sloppy fat guy, the rich blonde bully, a party atmosphere, a lot of drinking, some fighting, adolescent humor, boobs on display, music montages! Yep, Up the Creek has it all!

So, let’s meet our heroes!.

Up-The-Creek-1984-teen-sex-comedy-Tim-Matheson-Stephen-Furst-Dan-MonahanDan Monahan as Max. Fans of 80s teen sex comedies will immediately recognize him as Pee Wee from Porky’s. This time he’s not the horny virgin who’s the butt of every joke. He’s a bit more of a sex hound and isn’t as naive as Pee Wee. Sandy Helberg is the groups nerdy, dorky virgin Irwin. He’s a four-eyed, scaredy cat who can be very wishy washy. 

Stephen Furst is an overeating, dimwitted slob. Furst really was busy playing exaggerated gluttonous comedic characters. Here he’s less a docile character as he was as Flounder in Animal House and is more boorish like he was in Midnight Madness. His character of Gonzer is similar to John Belushi’s iconic frat animal Bluto in Animal House. He even wears a ripped blue sweater like Belushi wore. There are many scenes of him acting very silly and stuffing his face with both hands filled with food.  

Up-the-Creek-1984-river-rafting-comedy-Tim-Matheson-Jennifer-RunyonTim Matheson is Bob McGraw. He’s a very similar character as his old Animal House Eric “Otter” Stratton. He’s the smart-talking, confident ladies man leader of the group. 

Now you might think – Wait, Matheson is still playing a college student??? Animal House was six years before Up The Creek! Shouldn’t he have graduated at this point from playing college students?

Well, the movie makes a joke of Matheson’s extended college tenure, explaining he’s in his twelfth year of college. He essentially plays a pretty identical character to Otter. You can almost view Up the Creek and Matheson in this as a followup movie – ‘Otter goes to the Rapids’. 

Matheson’s Bob McGraw does have one little quirk. McGraw is an English Lit major and often speaks narration outloud as if he’s sharing his inner monologue or he’s reading descriptions from a book. It’s meant to be funny, add to his persona as a wise ass and make Runyon swoon by his charming, colorful descriptions.

Up-The-Creek-1984-Tim-Matheson-Steve-Guttenberg-Michael-KeatonI’ve read Michael Keaton was the first choice to play the lead in Up the Creek. After he turned it down, Steve Guttenberg was going to do it. And according to IMDB, “over the course of a weekend, [Guttenberg] instead decided to sign up for Police Academy”. This left a vacancy for the lead hero and Matheson stepped in. 

I should also mention the guys have a canine companion Chuck the Wonder Dog, who they can talk with and who will provide some funny visual gags. 

Things start in somewhat a similar setting as Animal House. The four buddies are students at the rundown, ramshackle campus of Lepetomane University (also known as Lobotomy U.). It’s a wreck of a place with the worst scores of any college in the country. But Lepetomane’s Dean (that’s Hillerman!) has an idea to turn around its reputation.

Up-The-Creek-1984-comedy-college-rafting-race-castSince the college has never won any kind of awards, he orders the group to enter the two-day Collegiate White Water Rafting Race and bring back the winning medal. He explains he’s choosing the worst four students to do this since they no longer have anything to lose. For some reason it doesn’t matter they never paddled a raft before. That’s a minor detail I suppose. If they can somehow win the rafting race, they will be given graduation degrees in any subject they want. 

This is a pretty nutty, unreal premise already. But the movie needs a setup for the goofy rafting outing they’ll embark on and give them a strong reason to have to win it. Earning a college degree in return of winning a rafting race. Ok, why not.

I have to point out, there seems to be a whole sub-genre of comedies where a misfit group has to win some competition or there’s a final race the climax hangs on. One Crazy Summer, Summer Rental, Hot Dog…The Movie.

James-Sikking-Up-the-Creek-1984-comedyApparently winning this rafting race is a real feather in the cap for colleges to want to compete for. This explains why evil, rich James Sikking, who is sponsoring the race, is secretly arming his altar mater frat brothers of Ivy U. with weapons to guarantee them an easy win. Why a disciplined military school commander is setting out to sabotage the competition. Why a sorority of beautiful girls from Vanity U. have entered the race. Everyone wants this trophy!  

Rather than college kids having sex and getting into all manner of trouble at a rowdy college campus or a beach vacation, in Up The Creek, it’s a wilderness setting with mountains and rivers being the setting for the usual hijinks. So the standard 80s teen comedy fixture are present at the rafting race, It’s filled with goofy characters, silly humor, sex, drinking, fighting and juvenile gags.

As the start to the race nears, Matheson romances Runyon very quickly. Runyon is given an ‘introducing’ credit in the movie. Her ex-boyfriend East now despises Matheson and with his bag of cheating tricks at the ready, is determined to make Matheson and his pals sink on the course. The Ivy team has crossbows, model airplanes and torpedos that will take out the competition.

Up-The-Creek-1984-comedy-raft-raceThere’s also those military school cadets that blame Matheson for them getting disqualified. So during the race our heroes have to watch out for the camouflaged loons. The military team’s ultra stern commander embarks on covert operations, of course accompanied by militaristic humorous music. Each devious scheme he comes up with ends up cartoonishly backfiring in his face every step of the way. 

It’s the classic ‘Slobs vs the Snobs’ story! Can Matheson and his pals win this rafting race in the end?

Up-the-Creek-river-rafting-1984-comedy-hot-tub-sceneBackground college rafters are taken down by torpedoes and arrows from the Ivy team. There are a lot of scenes of people frantically jumping into the water while the evil preppies laugh. Matheson and his motley group infiltrate the glitzy overnight campgrounds that Sikking has laid out for his college brats.

Lush beautiful tents filled with hot tubs and naked girls. Matheson and the gang unleash a little bit of payback on the baddies. And Furst wears a maid outfit for added humor. Drag is always an easy goto visual gag in these kind of movies.

Helberg is kidnapped by the military frat and has to be saved. That is before the crazy army commander decides it’s a good idea to dynamite the river causing some extra hurdles for our heroes to get to the finish line. Can they possibly finish first, win the trophy and get their degrees??? 

I’ve often thought of Up the Creek as the ’80s teen comedy warped version of Race For Your Life Charlie Brown

Up-The-Creek-1984-comedy-Sandy-HelbergRewatching a lot of these 80s teen sex comedies today you have to accept most weren’t made to get awards attention or were trying to reach for ‘classic film status’ where one day they would be featured on Turner Classic Movies.

There are always exceptions. For every Fast Times at Ridgemont High, a film that would be revered, loved and become an 80s teen classic, there’s dozens of Screwballs.

They were more ‘of the moment’ type of comedies. This massive flood of movies that rode the wave of a demanding teen audience wanting to be entertained became easily profitable. Movies could be made on the cheap, be filled with dumb jokes, have some tawdry bits in them and get young teens to buy a ticket to see. They were disposable entertainment. With any luck maybe a sequel could be squeezed out of a title if it were successful enough. But for the most part, they would enjoy a few weeks in theaters, then end up on cable before fading away.

Today there might be a small fanbase for many of these 80s teen sex comedies, but it’s not a very respected genre of movies. Most were just lousy with little redeeming qualities to them, leaving not a lot of incentive for later generations to rediscover them. You’ll find them buried in the deep recesses of streaming services libraries barely getting any attention.

With that perspective, it’s somewhat hard to conceive that some teen sex comedies actually were major releases by studios. They hit cinema screens across the country, had ads in newspapers, commercials on television and were reviewed by film critics. Yep, Siskel and Ebert reviewed Up the Creek on their show. And you might be surprised they both gave Up the Creek two thumbs up! 

At its core, Up the Creek is a teen sex comedy. All the components are in place from the characters to the silly humor to the comedic misadventures to the required shots of topless girls. Let’s be real, you know exactly where the story is going to go and how Up the Creek is going to unfold and how it will end as soon as it starts. 

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Most of the slapstick comedy is telegraphed immediately. For instance, when you see the military frat readying a comically-sized boulder to roll down onto Matheson in the river, you know how the plan will backfire. It’s the broad type of comedy that the Police Academy movies milked throughout its series.

Yet, thanks to its setting, the rafting scenes and the cast, Up the Creek ends up being a better than average teen comedy. I wouldn’t say it’s a classic in any way, but it is decent. Certainly much better than a lot of the other 80s teen comedies I’ve watched in the past. 

Everyone loves the wisecracking hero, and Matheson has some quote worthy one liners that fans would be eager to repeat and use in opportune moments if they were given the chance. In fact, the foursome of friends make an entertaining group to hang out with for awhile. Starring in this type of movie was well run territory for most of the actors and they knew exactly how to play their roles and how to mine the most of the silly humor they needed to deliver on.

Up-the-Creek-1984-comedy-Tim-Matheson-Dan-Monahan-Jennifer-Runyon-Stephen-FurstUp the Creek was directed by Emmy-winning director Robert Butler, who did extensive work in television (Hill Street Blues, Moonlighting, Remington Steele). Perhaps it was he who raised the bar for this frivolous rafting comedy.

The rafting scenes are pretty well done, especially considering the type of movie this is. It’s an adolescent rafting race comedy, boobs and farting should be the important things! But the film doesn’t cheap out on some of the more tense rafting scenes.

Up-the-Creek-1984-white-water-rafting-scenes-stunts-They didn’t just lazily send the actors down a calm river, but there are sequences in the rapids that it’s clear they put effort into filming them and making them as exciting as possible.

Sure, there are shots you can tell are stunt performers in the raft and it’s not exactly The River Wild, but you do get some decent whitewater rafting action. There’s an explosive finale that happens to the river causing the group to paddle for their lives – and the win – and it’s it’s fun conclusion. 

Being set in the mountains and rivers of Oregon, they did try to utilize the scenery as much as they could. Characters falling into the river, flying down cliffs, camping out, paddling for their lives, the guys jumping out of their exploding raft and playing charades with Chuck the Wonder Dog, the film manages to show off the mountainous locations in Oregon. It looks like a place worth a camping vacation!

The movie includes a title song, ‘Up the Creek’ by Cheap Trick. The song opens the film and pops in during the end credits. Years later lead guitarist Rick Nielsen who co-wrote the song didn’t remember it fondly or thought much of it. “Now that was a bad song! I co-wrote that… no, wait, let’s see… I can’t remember. Maybe I actually wrote that whole thing. Man! I must’ve been high. That was one of the worst songs – put it this way, it was one of the worst movies that’s ever been out. Song-wise, it fit right in with the movie.”

As for the music video that coincided with the release of the film, Nielsen said, “[The] video was the worst we’ve ever done. We’ve done some bad, bad ones, but that took the cake.”

Ok, so maybe I’ve built up Up the Creek a bit too much. It’s not that great a movie. It is an interesting 80s teen comedy. Matheson and his co-stars deliver exactly what their standard character types need to be for a movie like this. East is a fun despicable villain, exactly the type you want to see humiliated in the end. Runyon is sweet and cute. Just seeing her brings me back to that time decades ago when she was the fleeting ‘It Girl’ in movies and tv.

Up-the-Creek-1984-comedy-Tim-Matheson-Jennifer-RunyonFor what it is Up the Creek is not bad. For its genre, I’d consider it an underrated movie in the category. It might not have attained the mainstream love or cult affection that more popular 80s teen sex comedies have enjoyed, so it’s something of anomaly. Which is kind of strange, given the cast and that it’s got everything you would want when sitting down to watch a dumb ’80s comedy.

Would Up the Creek have been improved or better remembered had Michael Keaton or Steve Guttenberg starred in it? That’s a question for the ages.

The trailer for Up the Creek. They really wanted to be sure to remind audiences of the music in the film to sell those soundtrack albums.

1 thought on “Up The Creek (1984) – A Review

  1. Up the Creek is a decent movie.. not funny but good for the type of film it is.. It never takes itself seriously, There’s nice gratuitous nudity which pretty much all films from the 1990s onward lack and Jennifer Runyon looks beautiful. She later was in the TV show ‘Charles in Charge’ which was really the only reason to watch it.. 80s escapism depicting a better time and decade

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