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Back To The '80s: Penthouse in Pop Culture
Film & TV|Apr 27, 2021

Back To The '80s: Penthouse in Pop Culture

By The '80s, References To Penthouse Magazine Were Everywhere In Film & TV.
Amie Wee

Penthouse has been in the minds, mouths and hands of people since its debut on British newsstands in 1965. The first issue sold out in mere days, and the magazine’s quick success led Penthouse founder Bob “The Gooch” Guccione to launch the first U.S. issue in 1969. The magazine’s raunchier-than-Playboy full-frontal content, bawdy humor and balls-to-the-wall journalism made its stamp on society and ensured that by the ’70s, Penthouse was on its way to becoming a household name. But by the ’80s, Penthouse was firmly ingrained in pop culture. 

Everyone was talking about Penthouse.

It might have had something to do with The Gooch’s ballsy approach to publishing, and the fact that during the ’80s, Penthouse printed the unauthorized nudes of Madonna and a reigning Miss America – Vanessa Williams, and featured the likes of Debbie Harry and a controversial shoot with porn star Traci Lords.

As a result, Penthouse was referenced in a lot of movies that came out during the ’80s.

One of these films includes the 1984 fishy fairy tale Splash, an unlikely love story between land dweller Allen Bauer (Tom Hanks) and a hot blonde mythical mermaid (Daryl Hannah). In the film, Allen’s cringeworthy brother, Freddie (John Candy), rocks up in his red sports car at the family business with a stack of Penthouse magazines. Freddie brags that they ran the erotic story he wrote before handing out the magazines to his colleagues and customers, who read them right there in public. In another scene, Allen is overwhelmed by a mob of reporters, and Freddie asks, “Is anyone here from Penthouse magazine?” When the reporters say “no,” he responds, “Then we ain’t talkin’.”

Max and Eleven raid teen heartthrob Billy's bedroom and discover a bunch of genuine '80s editions of Penthouse.

Then there’s the 1989 American comedy Troop Beverly Hills, directed by Jeff Kanew, in which a scout troop visits a retirement home to help the elderly in pursuit of a Wilderness Girls patch. The girls offer a resident a few different magazines, which he declines, before they randomly produce a Penthouse, which he gladly accepts and immediately flips open to the topless centerfold before the shot cuts. 

We see another Penthouse centerfold in Christmas Evil, a 1980 horror-thriller about a middle-aged toy factory worker named Harry Stadling (Brandon Maggart), who is obsessed with Christmas and goes on a Yuletide killing spree while dressed as Santa Claus. In one scene, Harry is peering into the window of a boy’s bedroom to determine whether he’s been naughty or nice, only to catch the kid cutting out a bare-breasted centerfold image from the glossy pages of Penthouse. That triggers a flashback to when young Harry watched Santa Claus go down on his mother in 1948.

In the 1988 Ozploitation thriller Vicious!, a rich young guy who has just graduated high school and seems to have a promising future ahead of him, turns into a ruthless killer when he falls in with a gang of misfits. There’s a strange scene in which he’s idly flicking through an Australian Penthouse when a trio of hooligan robbers come calling.

In 2019, Penthouse even got a mention in the popular supernatural ’80s-throwback Netflix series Stranger Things. In season three’s third episode “The Case of the Missing Lifeguard”, Max and Eleven raid teen heartthrob Billy’s bedroom and discover a bunch of genuine ’80s editions of Penthouse magazine stashed in his drawers.

Although The Gooch and the ’80s are behind us, Penthouse continues to thrive. Grab your popcorn.