Every summer, critics and film fans alike love to predict the eventual box office champions. They look across the 40 or 50 flicks about to open, manufacture a formula that takes into consideration past performance, their own interest levels, the timeliness of the title and a few other subjective factors, and draw their concrete conclusions. Sometimes, this process is stiflingly simple. After all, Spider-Man 3, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, and Shrek the Third all look like guaranteed money in the bank – and BIG money at that. Even if each one fails to fulfill its promise – either aesthetically or commercially – they will earn back their budgets via international releases, preplanned merchandising, and the eventual DVD release/TV premiere. In fact, it’s safe to say that they are doomed to succeed. There are just so many interconnected interests that it’s impossible for them to truly flop.
So what then, in this multimedia day and age, truly constitutes a bomb? How do you judge a failure in a film world bursting with recoup possibilities? Well, perception is part of it. Many people are pointing their fingers at Grindhouse, arguing that the Weinstein Company’s $70 million dollar exploitation experiment is a true disaster, barely earning $20 million in retail receipts. No matter the critical success, a lack of cash instantly seems to signal defeat. On the other side of the spectrum is something like Pathfinder. The Marcus Nispel Viking epic failed to generate any interest, even in the wake of the similarly styled (and massively successful) 300. Clearly, commercial failure is only one element in the equation. Other factors including buzz, anticipation, and artistic merit are considered as well. When sizing up any film, then, one must look at its path toward potential success, and the facets that also indicate eminent failure.
This still makes forecasting the Summer’s Stinkers difficult. As you will see below, the five films chosen all have some manner of redeeming cinematic qualities. Two are sequels, one’s aimed directly at the kiddies and another features a pair of popular comedians apparently working within the strict demands of their demographic. Toss in a potential genre sleeper, and you’ve got a group of slighty above average prospects. And yet there is also something about each of these movies that just screams debacle. Call it an aura of superfluity or a brazen big fishiness in what remains a mighty large cinematic ocean – whatever you want. These movies seem destined to die the most prominent of box office deaths. Others released between now and 31 August may be opting for a similar seasonal fate, but we here at SE&L are gambling that these projects will be remembered as 2007’s best of the worst. Let’s start with:
Fantastic Four: The Rise of the Silver Surfer
Let’s face it – the original wasn’t some massive megahit. It did rather nicely for its studio ($155 million), especially for a movie very few people actually liked (Rotten Tomatoes Rating – a mere 26%). And up until the sequel was announced, many in the comic book fanbase felt that this entire franchise would end up a well deserved one-off deal. Now comes the inevitable follow-up (thanks in part to the success of the film on DVD and cable TV showings) and with it, a villain guaranteed to make audiences groan. Back in the day, the Silver Surfer was a misunderstood alien dude who came to Earth to wreck some havoc, only to fall into the whole peace and love vibe of the magical ‘60s, and end up a kind of counterculture convert. Here, he’s the T-1000 on a CG boogie board. While geeks have been salivating over the possibility of this character’s arrival from the moment the original Roger Corman adaptation of the quartet was released, it remains difficult to figure out just who’s anxious to see Michael Chiklis in a bad Ben Grimm outfit again (Jessica Alba’s Susan Storm? That’s another story altogether). Indeed, everything about this cinematic series feels second rate and underdone, which translates into very little blockbuster potential.
Live Free or Die Hard
Sorry Bruce, it just won’t work this time. Over the 12 years since the last installment in this series, you’ve done a wonderful job of dispelling your ‘action hero only’ mythos, and settled into a nice rut as a talented, reliable actor. Sure, you’ve certainly stumbled along the way (The Story of Us, Perfect Stranger), and your rocky personal life didn’t help matters much, but you did a decent job of leaving John McClane and his “yippee yay kay aye-ing” in your wake. So why pick him back up after all this time? It’s not like the latest generation of film fans has been eager to see you return to the agent against the. apocalypse format, and this latest idea (a supersmart computer hacker tries to give the entire world a crippling virus) is just so Y2K. And the choice of Len Wiseman as a director? PU! Come on, this is a guy whose been making werewolf vs. vampire films for the last four years – and when he’s done with you, he’s back to the paranormal with yet another installment in the Underworld franchise (this time out, it’s a prequel). Unless the stunt setpieces redefine the concept of action, this latest series installment looks dead on arrival.
I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry
This is clearly a case of a high concept losing sight of what truly makes people laugh. Now, if you get a bunch of drunken frat boys in a room together and tell them a slew of homophobic jokes, you’re bound to get some beer-soaked guffaws. But in our proto-PC society, where humor has to now walk a fine line between crass and considerate, something like this sloppy same sex stupidity can’t possibly work. Adam Sandler appeared to move beyond his arrested adolescence aura with Click, and for the most part, his fanbase decided to join him. But he has long stopped being the clown prince of the college crowd, and trying to reenergize your star status by making fun of gay men seems like a tricky proposition. Certainly you’ll draw the Neanderthals and those predisposed to prejudice as pratfalls, but there is something uneasy about the whole forced machismo and ‘emotions are emasculating’ narrative undercurrent. Rumor has it that the studio ran this film by GLAAD before approving its release. It was also true that this script sat around for years, with many famous A-listers a tad antsy about how it would play in this supposedly enlightened post-millennial age. Here’s guessing it won’t.
Talk about your animated sacrilege! Underdog may have been many things – a rhyme obsessed goody two shoes, a blind as a bat paramour for an eager Sweet Polly Purebred, a simpleton superhero battling less than capable crooks – but he was never, ever, EVER! considered to be real. Anthropomorphized and pictured in pen and ink, but no child ever thought he was an honest to goodness pup. So what do those dunce caps over in Tinsel Town try to pull on us? They figure that they can turn this entire project into a live action kiddie action film and no one will really care. They’ll even give the title character a hip adolescent swagger, turning him from a moralizing mensch into a skaterat with a tail. Didn’t these people learn ANYTHING from the whole Itchy/Scratchy/Poochie fiasco? You don’t mess around with the classics – even if you’ve somehow managed to stumble upon the brilliant casting decision of Peter Dinklage playing villian Simon Barsinister. Belgian director Frederik Du Chau may have the proper family film credentials (he made the semi-successful Racing Stripes) but this pile of hound hashwey appears ready to crash and burn. Those who remember the old series won’t darken its big screen doors, and by this time in the season (mid-August), the wee ones are just worn out.
Reshoots months after a movie has wrapped are never a good sign. Reshoots helmed by a completely different director many months after a movie has wrapped is basically box office poison. Oliver Hirschbiegel, the dynamic German director behind the fabulous Downfall: Hitler and the End of the Third Reich was handpicked by Joel Silver to realize this more or less unnecessary update of the classic Body Snatchers as his first foray into big time Hollywood filmmaking. What he wasn’t prepared for was the meddling by the manic producer, an accident which sidelined one of his stars (Nicole Kidman) and the sudden Bond-ing of male lead Daniel Craig. With his cut delivered in early 2006, Silver decided to simply sit on it. Then, when V for Vendetta proved popular, he contacted director James McTeague to reform the film. He, in turn, brought along the Wachowski Brothers, and soon Hirschbiegel became a creative persona non grata. But all of this is really ancillary to Invasion‘s biggest problem – there are already three versions of this idea sitting out in the motion picture marketplace – and two out of the three are considered classics. With its tentative production rep and a legitimate legacy to live up to, this film can’t ‘replicate’ past successes.
During the first week of September, we will come back to this piece and see just how accurate our predictions were. We’ll take the blame if and when we’re wrong. But if we hit these five unnecessary nails on the head, all we can say is – we warned you.
It just doesn’t seem right. Oh sure, all the creative forces seem to be in proper alignment, and there’s a Great White Way full of good will banking on the fact that it will work. But with the memory of John Waters’ brilliant original still fresh in one’s mind, it’s hard to fathom how a big screen musical version of Hairspray will actually succeed. And before you scoff at such a suggestion, here’s a couple of words for you to contemplate – The Producers. Mel Brooks’ Broadway smash, winner of more Tonys than any other show in theater history, was positioned to be the song and dance delight of 2005. It too also had its foundation in a much loved comic masterpiece. But somewhere between the roar of the greasepaint and the smell of the crowd, the film adaptation tanked. Guaranteed Oscar bait magically transformed into a clear critical condemnation.
Initially, it doesn’t seem like Hairspray will suffer from a similar fate. The Producers problem had more to do with translating the show’s over the top manic spirit into a medium not known for its looseness and frivolity. What stars Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick did on the NY stage exceeded theater – they were recreating a humor masterpiece while tossing in a few novelty numbers for good measure. But film is a cruel mistress, especially to the musical. Remove the artificiality of the stage setting, and people breaking into song seems odd, even antithetical to four decades of post-modern cinema. That’s why Waters’ original film was so perfect. It celebrated youth, dance, Baltimore and the rise of ‘60s (with all its social pros and cons) while never once forgetting the concept of fun.
But the new version, crafted by the award winning combination of Thomas Meehan (Annie, The Producers and Hairspray) Mark O’Donnell (Hairspray) and Marc Shaiman, seems to have cast aside all the nostalgia to create a more PC version of Tracy Turnblad’s coming of age. From what we can see of the film in the new trailer (recently released to the web), the civil rights angle is being amplified, while the American Bandstand-esque Corny Collins Show is barely even featured. Part of the fun in Waters’ movie was watching prototypical teens master such classic sock hop favorites as ‘The Madison’, ‘The Mashed Potato’ and ‘The Pony’. One assumes that material is still part of this new story. But in the first Hairspray, it was the film’s reason for being. Here it seems like puffery surrounding the musical’s main purpose.
Anyone familiar with the infamous Pope of Puke knows that Waters is not a wholly political filmmaker. While his movies are often filled with nonconformist approaches and counterculture ideals, his is an avant-garde ideal forged out of personal, not agenda-based, beliefs. His Hairspray wasn’t out to right the wrongs of ‘50s racism. Instead, he was acknowledging the power that rock and roll had in bringing black and white together. Over the last 40 plus years, sociologists have confirmed that the meshing of R&B with country, hillbilly with soul, did more to break down ethnic barriers and change the popular culture than a dozen demonstrations. While it may not have been a question of Constitutional rights and duties, the kids got it. Dancing was dancing, no matter the color of your skin.
Waters captured this perfectly in his Hairspray. He let his Tracy Turnblad – the magnificent Ricki Lake – become the surrogate for all the suffering going on. As a fat girl in a situation made up of standard concepts of beauty, the character became a litmus test for the narrow minded among the members of the Corny Collins Show‘s Council. Some mocked her size, while others embraced its novelty. Once we saw what a great dancer Tracy was – and how open she was to the experience of being with people of different backgrounds and heritages – the subtle third act move to the race riot at a local amusement park didn’t seem shocking. In fact, it seemed inevitable. More importantly, the issue grew organically out of the situation. Tracy and her best friend Penny liked the black kids they hung out with, and couldn’t understand how their parents and the city could be so narrow-minded and misguided.
It’s all a question of perception. Waters’ Hairspray seems convinced that, like the era it is set in, music will set the audience free. And for the most part, it does. Proving that he’s one of the great directors of dance in modern moviemaking, Waters enlivens all his ‘musical’ moments with the pure joy of movement. Tracy’s not a wonder because she’s a fat girl who can dance. Instead, she’s a marvel because she’s a dancer trapped in a big gal’s body. By taking this facet out of the entertainment equation, by introducing every emotion and idea through a lyric or sonic situation, the Broadway version of the show loses a key component. And it’s upon this realization that the new film’s flaw rests.
In general, musicals succeed because of memorable melodies mixed with clear entertainment transcendence. Like Effie’s proud declaration of intent “And I Am Telling You” or Audrey’s lovely lament about leaving Little Shop of Horrors’ heinous Skid Row to live “Somewhere That’s Green”, a great song in a solid storyline will take the audience out of the narrative and place them in a kind of elative limbo. We accept both the sentiment and the situation as they seamlessly meld together into a facet of pure potency. It’s what separates the classic shows from the fly by night flops. The new Hairspray‘s score is impressive, and Shaiman has a wonderful way with scene-stealing stances. But Tracy’s story is now one aspect of a multi-leveled look at life circa 1962, and it’s more verbal than visual.
On a low budget, with very little studio support, Waters captured the look and feel of his childhood exquisitely. He did it with a careful combination of fresh faces and ‘45s. The records he chose to highlight, the dances he used as divining rods, spoke the volumes of information the movie needed to get across. The musical now must match that, but it must do it in song. And since characters like Motormouth Mabel and Velma Von Tussle have been expanded, made massively more important to the segregation storyline that anchors the entire plotline, the focus becomes confused. In Waters’ world, Tracy’s spirit lifted her locale out of the bigoted dark ages, if only for one day, on one minor TV dance party showcase. Now, she’s a catalyst to bigger change, and even larger pronouncements regarding equality.
And then there is the musical’s main gimmick – that is, following the original Hairspray’s casting design and allowing a man to play the role of Tracy’s mother, Edna. Of course, Waters did this out of necessity and purposeful design. To this day, no other actor, straight or gay, stag or drag has been able to recapture what Glen “Divine” Milstead could do in a oversized print dress and a bad washwoman’s wig. One of those rare talents whose abilities are missed more and more as the years go by, Divine is the other reason Waters’ movie works so well. Call it the “X” factor, or just the sign of a sensational performer at the top of his/her game, but when Edna Turnblad goes from laundry lady to her daughter’s determined agent, fielding offers and fending off the Von Tussle’s insults, she becomes the story’s spitfire soul.
Of course, on stage, Edna gets a song. She also gets a fleshed out sequence with her joke shop owning husband, Wilbur. In a brilliant bit of casting, Harvey Fierstein played the part, and earned a Tony for same. Similar to Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick in the theatrical version of their show, Fierstein was allowed to vamp and rave for audiences, turning on his gay-laced charms to speck the show with moments of campy cleverness. For the film, the stunt strays a bit. As brilliant as the casting of John Travolta is (a singer, a dancer, and a solid actor, all around), it has the feeling of being a genius stroke that’s already turning tedious. After seeing the macho man encased in a fat suit, strutting around like a pig in pastels, one instantly misses the glam sham guys who came before.
There is also one final filmic warning sign – the director. Adam Shankman is behind the movie musical version of Hairspray, and his credits are concerning at best. Unless someone considers The Wedding Planner, Bringing Down the House, The Pacifier and Cheaper by the Dozen 2 to be the end all/be all of modern moviemaking, this singing, dancing demonstration of music’s ability to change appears to be in very iffy hands. Of course, recent rumors have New Line – the production company behind the project – so ecstatic about the movie as a whole that they are positioning Shankman for an early Oscar run. It is obvious from the trailer that Hairspray looks good. It has the feel and heft of a major motion picture, one loaded with big performances, bright colors and the scope and sweep of a spectacle. But a film lives and dies by everything it contains – the small moments, the throwaway performances – and Shankman hasn’t proved his overall acumen, especially not based on his current resume.
With over two months to go before we get the final, full length verdict, it’s clear that this new version of Hairspray has little chance of topping the original. It may be just as good, or even better in some people’s opinion, but the fact remains that John Waters and the men who adapted his show for Broadway are functioning at clear cross purposes. In his fascinating book, Shock Treatment, the native Baltimore bad boy talked about how The Buddy Dean Show defined his youth, it’s combination of scandalous ‘race’ music and conservative, all white sensibilities illustrating the main dichotomy of pre-Beatles popular culture. Hairspray was his homage to that time. In musical form, however, it looks like all that is lost. The new message may be just as valid, but it clearly belongs to someone else. And that just doesn’t seem right.
Dear Weinstein Brothers. We know things aren’t going particularly well for you right now. After severing ties with the notoriously bothersome House of Mouse and striking out on your own, you’ve found nothing but roadblocks in your Neuvo Miramax highway to success. Your recent releases have all underperformed, and now, that 2007 tent pole, the fascinating Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez retrofest Grindhouse is being buried under a bounty of bad press. The entertainment community, desperate to see you fall on your flabby behinds, has come after you like sharks on a wounded whale, and the foreseen flopsweat is ripe with potential failure. It’s gotten so bad that you’ve even been thinking of taking both movies, expanding their individual running times, and releasing them as separate cinematic experiences.
Guys….guys…guys…calm down. Grab a bottle of Artesian spring water, a couple of prescription sedatives, and rest for a while. The LAST thing you want to do here is split apart this already intriguing return to the drive-in dynamic of three decades ago. Film fans of a certain age and demographic get what you were going for and really appreciate the time, talents, and tenacity you showed in getting it released. This was never going to be an easy sell – for one thing, Tarantino and Rodriguez are Grade-A certified geek meat if ever audiences tasted same. Their projects are propelled from a dork driven place so deep down inside their idiosyncratic ideals that basement dwelling film nerds feel unworthy in their presence. If you thought you were about to make mega-bucks with these oddball directorial dweebs, you must have been smokin’ screener copies of Shakespeare in Love.
Grindhouse was destined to be a tough ticket for numerous, obvious reasons. You’re dealing with horror and other genre elements, facets that most film fans tend to kvetch over, and critics can’t understand or appreciate. Next, you’re dealing with a category of cinema that few comprehend, let alone welcome. Ask someone what they think of exploitation, and you’re likely to get the regurgitated opinion of some overly academic dickweed who doesn’t cotton to any aspect of the raincoat crowd. Add in the uneven tone, the tendency to associate the entire project with the outer fringes of major mainstream motion pictures, and the lack of genuine buzz (thank you so bloody much, 300!), and you’ve got a dead on delivery dud. Even if you gained a 100% “fresh” rating over at Rotten Tomatoes, audience ennui would be enough to give your business plan agita before the Friday estimates were released.
But this doesn’t mean you give up. You shouldn’t conform to a viewing going public too dumb to fathom what you’re doing. As a matter of fact, the failure of the film has nothing to do with what’s up on screen. Grindhouse remains a witty, inventive, highly satiric, and gross as all get out experience that’s practically overpowering in its artistic energy and invention. Tearing it apart and turning it into a crude competition of sorts (and between Rodriguez and Tarantino, one can almost envision where your cash is landing) will destroy everything your filmmakers fashioned. And let’s not forget the fake trailers. Those who participated in making those marvelous mock ads deserve some respect as well. Yet the question becomes, how do you solve this seemingly impossible problem. How do you make audiences interested (or in some cases, re-interested) in a title already tainted by a group of jaded journalists? The answer, oddly enough, is right in front of you.
Like the fabled producers of old, the men who made exploitation the historical hinge for all post-modern cinema, you can’t take failure as the final response. David F. Friedman, Dan Sonny, Harry Novak and Bob Cresse didn’t make mountains of money – and a ballbusting reputation - by moping around the minute the public rejected their efforts. No, they reinvented these projects, using the standard carnival barker approach of bait and switch to change the perception of their problematic productions. Sure, this SOUNDS like what you want to do, but there is a big difference between cutting your losses and trimming the fat. These men made their all important names out of never failing the public, by understanding what the people prefer, and more importantly, what they’d be willing to pay for. If a standard sexless thriller didn’t work, they’d tack on a scandalous ‘square-up’ reel to increase the erotica. If the horror wasn’t high enough, more blood drenched gore was quickly inserted. Entire films were re-edited, sequences reshoot, and plotlines changed to find the right combination of salable shuck and jerryrigged jive.
So, following this pattern, here’s what you should do. First, pull this daring double feature from the theaters before more self-styled pundits can piss all over it. Take stock in what you have already available in cutting room trimmings and existing tweak time, and get your auteurs involved. Make them part of, not the reason for, this process. Don’t dawdle over money or creative control – the ship is sinking and the rats have already ponied up and abandoned you. Look to the future – say the end of August/beginning of September – and get your accessible forces poised for war. It’s going to be a long and involved process, but in the end, you could be looking at 300 style returns at the end of the day.
In the case of Planet Terror, reinsert the “missing reel” sex scene between Rose McGowen and Freddy Rodriguez, turn the Bone Shack into a combination barbeque pit and badass biker bar, let the chopper riding rejects rumble with some good old fashioned fisticuffs, give us more of the stoic stripper storyline (including lots of shots of nubile naked torsos) and then tell Robert Rodriguez to remove a little of the freak show spectacle. Granted, no one enjoys mindless bloodletting as much as this considered critic, but fountains of grue spouting over and over again can get a tad, well, old. Instead, how about more of those amazing moments when deconstructed corpses are examined in nasty, nauseating detail. In a world awash in CGI chum, physical effects can really help you stand out. Besides, nothing will sell the fright flick facets of this production better than more shots of Fergie’s hollowed out head.
As for your main man QT, tell that diva director to turn down the chatter. The dialogue in Death Proof is amazing, the kind of potent palaver that Tarantino carries Oscar gold for. But in a film that’s a self-described “slasher flick”, what we need is more slice and less nice. Listening to girls gossip and give their unique opinions of sex and self within the context of a killer action thriller is like featuring random shots of kittens during a snuff film. Trim a few minutes of their minutia driven confabs, give Kurt Russell more lines (he is an endlessly fascinating character who we need to know more about) and provide another stellar suspense sequence like the one where the car’s characterization is proven on Rose McGowen’s unsuspecting person. Make it lean and mean and you’d have one amazing movie on your hands.
Finally, find a few more famous filmmakers willing to give you some new and novel trailers – perhaps approach members of the referenced and revered like John Carpenter or Herschell Gordon Lewis. And then tell the MPAA to go to Hell. That’s right, thwart convention. Take a stand for all lovers of cinematic extremes. Position yourselves as the artist’s advocate, and let the marketing challenge chips fall where they may. It’s going to take you a good few months to get the interest level back up again, and to purge the perception of failure from almost all elements of this movie. Again, breaking them in two won’t do that. You’ll just double the disgust, making movie fans, in their mind, choose the lesser of two unexceptional evils. To revamp awareness and create curiosity, you have to reposition everything about your concept.
And the only way you can do that is via education. Time to teach the public what they obviously do not know – that is, that exploitation rewrote the motion picture roadmap. It created a freshness and openness that most filmmakers never even considered. Better yet, when foreign films couldn’t find a footing on American shores, the Grindhouse gang rescued these movies, exaggerated their simplistic sexual freedoms, and turned the arthouse into the cathouse. Recognize that you’re going to have to do a lot of explaining and hire someone happy to oblige – say Something Weird Video’s Mike Vraney, or Psychotronic’s Michael Weldon - and walk the viewers through a short lesson in the genre’s mesmerizing history. Get the remaining members of the 40 Thieves together for a series of interviews, or better yet, have IFC, Sundance, Encore, or any other cable channel that’s willing to work with you do a series of Grindhouse specials. Showing a certain style of movie once a week won’t cut it. You need constant coverage of the category with input from the people who provided the foundation for your post-millennial homage.
Then, create a documentary mini-series. Get QT and Rodriguez to go coast-to-coast, roadshowing their new versions in a day long grindhouse extravaganza. Let them position their films midway through, and then surround them both with a dawn to dusk collection of classics, cult faves and unknown gems. Toss in a few real trailers, a bunch of those clever, kitshy ads from the era, and make it a magnificently misguided marathon. Turn it into the Lollapalooza of b-movies madness, a real event that will proceed the regular theatrical showing. Of course, this is just the suggestion of someone who loves the original double feature and would hate to see it die from what appears to be a predetermined desire to see you fail. You’ve worked your magic on other minor efforts before. Here’s your chance to show the entire world that you can, and do, mean business. You can’t let audience apathy wear you down. Grindhouse is a good movie. Now it’s time to convince everyone else of that fact.
It’s been three days since it arrived on the web and yet the verdict is still out on Rob Zombie’s “reimagining” of John Carpenter’s classic slasher film Halloween. The new ‘teaser’ trailer, providing only the slightest glimpses of lead villain Michael Myers and the concerned psychiatrist chasing after him (the desperate Dr. Loomis is played this time around by Brit legend Malcolm McDowell), promises a lot – and Zombie himself instills a similar feeling of anticipation. After all, this was the man (rocker turned director) who delivered one of 2005’s best films, the excellent exploitation retread The Devil’s Rejects. Similarly, he’s a very serious student of the horror genre, as his flawed if still fascinating debut feature, House of 1000 Corpses, confirms.
But taking on a legend like Halloween doesn’t seem like the smartest move for this fledgling auteur. Unlike Marcus Nispel’s work in the remake of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, or Zach Synder’s efforts to bring Dawn of the Dead up to date, Zombie already has an established style. Call it schlock shock sensationalizing or Grand Guignol grindhouse, but he’s not the unknown quantity of say, Alexandra Aja or Christophe Gans. Here’s a man steeped in the creature feature concepts of the past, a person who’d fit in perfectly among classic TV horror hosts, the monster spook show spectacular, and as a standing member of the legendary 40 Thieves of exploitation. So why take on Carpenter’s signature film? Why bring so much potential criticism down on your recently revised reputation?
The answer appears to be twofold. First, it’s an obvious case of paycheck payback. Zombie’s Corpses was a trouble production from the very beginning, a full blown work of motion picture macabre in an era as yet unprepared to embrace same. For his tireless efforts, his release dates were endlessly bumped around, his vision eviscerated by mandated studio and MPAA cuts, and actual ownership of the title was tossed from distributor to distributor. That anyone got to see the final film is amazing in and of itself. But then Zombie played on that cinematic sob story, parlaying his problems into a gig creating an Evil Dead II style sequel. Unlike Corpses, The Devil’s Rejects had a clear intent – to mimic the drive-in grime and slime of the ‘70s slick sick flicks. As usual, success bred options, and taking a stack of greenbacks from MGM and Dimension for this remake was obviously something Zombie wanted – or needed.
The second response is far more compelling. A study of this new teaser trailer indicated a less stylized, more aggressive approach to the Michael Myers story. Carpenter, clearly a student of old school suspense and masters like Alfred Hitchcock, wasn’t aiming to dissect or probe the disturbed psychopathic mind. Instead, he wanted to manipulate the language of film to create the ultimate edge of your seat entertainment. He also wasn’t out to start the slasher fad (which, unfortunately, he did) nor did he think his initial effort would begat a continuing scare series. In essence, Halloween was a one shot deal that de-evolved into a callous cash grab. Any substance sustained from the way Carpenter imagined the story has long since disappeared into a ridiculous realm of repetitive revamps.
But Zombie’s concepts appear more honest, draped in reality and stripped of the first film’s slayer as superhuman characteristics. Delving deeper into Michael Myers backstory (the trailer offers fleeting glimpses of animal abuse and youthful violence – standard serial killer profile stuff) and envisioning his holiday night of terror in more everyday small town terms (another amazing shot comes near the end as a seemingly silent house reveals a death struggle at its doorstep), Zombie is apparently looking to bring Halloween into the vaguely voyeuristic 21 century.
Back when Carpenter created the story, there was a sense of neighborhood nonchalance in his tone, an acknowledgement that friends and family were beginning to close themselves off from one another over a palpable feeling of distrust. Gone were the days when front doors remained unlocked and homes were warm and inviting. In the nasty new world, undeniable dread was just a turn of the latch away, and Carpenter made grand use of such startling social designs. Zombie has no such logistical luxury. The present world is one in complete sync with suspicion and fear, a place where panic has unseated common sense as the overriding interpersonal emotion. Thanks to years of media fear mongering, and the government’s desire to use alarm as politics, he faces a populace already antsy and ready to react.
The teaser seems to tap into this idea in ways both obvious and indirect. We see a shot of Michael Myers entering a home, butcher knife poised to do some decidedly deadly damage. Quickly the camera pans over to a shocked girl sitting motionless in a stairwell, her defeated screams and lack of action indicating a repugnant resolve. It’s as if she’s already given up on life before our villain has a chance to take it from her. Similarly, there is a moment when our fiend is featured full faced (behind his shoddy Shatner mask, as always), Zombie’s lens focusing directly on the killer’s cold, empty eyes. In the background, McDowell is narrating, making his case for Michael as monster. But the two concepts don’t quite match. The words are alarmist, but we’ve actually seen that vacant look before. It’s a blankness that’s paraded out before us everyday during endless crime updates on the 24 hour news channels.
Still, the biggest hurdle Zombie faces here is making an idea that once seemed so novel – the unhinged spree killer – into something fresh and inventive. Thanks to endless Dateline ‘documentaries” and other fictionalized versions of the mass murderer’s mentality, we know this kind of character well. In fact, it’s become a thriller cliché; the mindless maniac with the singular desire to slay. From what we can decipher in the trailer, Zombie hopes to combat this by bringing clear-cut authenticity and realism to the narrative. By keeping the surroundings as recognizable and mundane as possible, while inserting within this scenario a shockingly non-supernatural “boogie man”, he hopes to bridge the gap between one trick pony and real onscreen terror.
It remains an uphill battle. Messageboards have been aflutter with negative views of this project ever since a copy of the supposed script was “leaked” onto the web. Those who revere the original have argued over every artistic choice Zombie has made, from dealing with Michael Myers as a young boy to jerryrigging some of the narrative’s most memorable shock elements. And since he proved at least twice before that he can handle original takes on horror and violence within the genre, many find it hard to dismiss the substantive stench of ‘sell-out’ clouding this entire enterprise. Following this fledgling filmmaker over the last decade or so, ever since Beavis and Butthead made his band a hilarious household name, it’s hard to imagine that Rob Zombie is only doing it for the dosh. Until August, when we get a more complete glimpse of his Halloween vision, we’ll be left wondering just how this entire nightmare scenario will play out. The odds, unfortunately, are in its favor, no matter the promise temporarily ‘teasing’ us.
In a little less than five days, maverick directors Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez will unleash their long awaited double feature phenomenon in the making, Grindhouse, onto an unsuspecting motion picture marketplace. Starring Kurt Russell, Rose McGowan, Rosario Dawson and a cadre of filmmaking friends (fake trailers for the presentation have been crafted by the likes of Rob Zombie and Eli Roth), the diabolical duo are hoping to open the eyes of tenderfoot film fans everywhere. It is their goal to bring the good old days of onscreen exploitation back to the masses.For his part, Rodriguez is serving up the splatter spoils, offering a zealous zombie stomp entitled Planet Terror. Tarantino, on the other hand, is exploring the seedier side of things with his psycho stuntman on the prowl, Death Proof. Together, they guarantee the classic concepts celebrated by drive-in film critics Joe Bob Briggs – beasts, boobs, and blood.
But is it really exploitation – or better yet, do these two inexplicable genre efforts guided by a pair of exceptionally talented men really warrant the true ‘grindhouse’ label? Signs are sketchy at best. It remains a fact that, scattered throughout the legacy of the taboo-busting genre, there are movies that explore similar themes. Harry Novak’s The Child, for example, was a great example of the living dead dynamic, and crazed killers stalking and splattering unwitting innocents (Booby Traps, A Scream in the Streets), were an industry mainstay. Even when you move beyond the outer fringes of the genre and into the more obscure examples of filmed filth, there are enough examples of the horror/crime/drug/sex standard to fulfill the retro raincoat crowd title. But the question remains, what about these new films in particular. Are they fact or fad, real attempts at recreation or, as one suspects, a gimmick used to serve an already attention-grabbing release?
It is obvious that no filmmaking duo – or dozen directors, for that matter – could sum up the exploitation genre in a single set of films. There are far too many subjects and subsets, aspects and approaches involved to allow for such an easy dissection. But the main issue with any supposed grindhouse offering is the purpose behind the production. Money was the motivating factor for these carnival barker like showmen. The main distributors and producers of the old school product even had a self-effacing nickname for themselves – The Forty Thieves. Running around the country playing drive-ins and gritty downtown theaters, they purposefully positioned their product like inventory in a warehouse. In his exceptional book, A Youth in Babylon, Mighty Monarch of the Exploitation World David F. Friedman argued for what is, in essence, a post-modern Hollywood film production ideal to the creating and commercializing of controversial cinema.
Whenever they began a project, the smart schlock filmmaker always took the temperature of the times. He (or in rare cases, she) sampled the pop culture landscape, looked to see what was making headlines (violence, sex crimes, drugs, etc.) and then made sure their movie stayed true to said subject’s more sensational elements. But beyond the narrative, producers recognized that through a clear demographical decision, they could almost predict where certain types of movie would be best received. Rowdy sex farces usually did well in the South, while far more mean-spirited or sadistic fare drew better in big cities. Finally, they would work up a mock budget, and determine a maximum amount of advertising and distribution monies to be spent. If all the salesmanship stars were aligned, they would then figure out the potential profit (these movies were NEVER made without a clear indication of the possible success) and maintain a strict adherence to this limited fiscal plan.
As a result, most exploitation films were not hits, but solid returns on precisely planned out investments. The artistic nature of a release was never considered, nor was the inevitable entertainment value to an audience ever gauged. In essence, the men making grindhouse fare were playing a masterful game of bait and switch. They would lure in curious crowds with their tantalizing, taboo subject matter, and then once the coinage was carefully concealed, roll out their less than exceptional effort. For anyone familiar with the long lineage of this kind of moviemaking, the vast majority of the interchangeable offerings are quite forgettable. Aside from their time capsule qualities, and ample depictions of nudity, they tend to be boring, unexceptional, crass and without merit.
So where exactly do Planet Terror and Death Proof reside? Well, for one thing, it’s clear that the entire premise for this double feature extravaganza comes from the drive-in dynamic which in turn, represents a late in life adjustment made by the exploitation gang. When theaters could no longer guarantee audiences, and mainstream movies started limiting available screens, the passion pit was instantly targeted. Not only was this done because of the guaranteed audience (remember, couples weren’t necessarily coming for the movies) but also out of a firm financial desperation.
After the initial craze in the ‘50s, drive-ins started losing their luster. By tapping into the need to compete with the major chains and growing Cineplex movement, the independent owners of these exterior entertainment venues would purposely look for something weird or unusual to enhance their visibility. And it usually worked. Herschell Gordon Lewis, the godfather of gore, once described his trepidation when his slice and dice epic, Blood Feast, was premiering at a rural outdoor theater from off the beaten prosperity path. Unsure of the location, his fears were quelled when he saw a mile long line of cars all waiting to pay for admission. So the bravura or bawdy b-movie found a second life playing to teenage audiences looking for a little psycho-sexual privacy as well as a place to pet.
Certainly, there aren’t specific requirements mandated to make a movie meet the grindhouse distinction, but its fairly obvious that Tarantino and Rodriguez are using the moniker to make their standard scare fests appears far more scandalous than they are. One is fairly sure that these will not be the envelope pushing perversion of something like Let Me Die a Woman (Doris Wishman’s surreal sex change drama) or Lewis’ harrowing horror comedy precursor, The Gore Gore Girls. In fact, when faced with gaining a dreaded MPAA rating, the only required snips came at the expense of Eli Roth’s slasher spoof trailer, Thanksgiving. Like William Castle before, or some of the more famous members of the Forty Thieves (Dan Sonny, for one), our mainstream directors are going retro for a reason.
Sure, it could be for a love of the genre – and it can be very addictive once you recognize how important the industry was to shaping the modern movie going experience. They could also have a far more obsessive fascination with the cinematic category, resulting in an understanding that’s more in touch with the basic tenets and expectations of the exploitation ideal than the casual fan may have. And indeed, they’ve never said their movies were all inclusive, reveling in any and all aspects of the miscreant movie model. But when you call your offering “Grindhouse”, and spend countless weeks pimping your product as same, you better be able to support your shilling – and right now, all this film has going for it is a great deal of geek goodwill.
Early buzz has been positive, if not necessarily loaded with the flagrant fanboy pontifications that one comes to expect (especially when its QT and RR at the helm). And with 300 stealing some of the movie’s pre-Summer publicity, including its rating as a must-see cinematic happening, we could be looking at a case of bad timing accompanied by limited appeal. Finally, we are dealing with a clear critical bias here – horror oriented movies made with a kind of craven creativity that jaded journalists no longer respond to. So in the end, Grindhouse will live and die thanks to its artistic more than its artificial elements. But one things for sure – it really isn’t a throwback to the days when ballyhoo controlled the box office. There’s nary a shout out to the pioneering picture makers of the past, and many of the more important facets that formed the genre are all but absent. Until it officially opens, it will remain a crafty concept expertly rendered by a couple of extremely sharp anti-Establishment icons. It’s a shrewd marketing ideal that even an old roadhouse huckster would envy.