PopMatters Books Editor
Can good performance save a bad film? It depends on the film’s degree of awfulness, but certainly, strong acting helps. It’s one of the reasons I own a little movie called Serial Killing 101 (2004). I’d say it should be avoided at all costs, were it not for Thomas Haden Church’s ridiculously entertaining turn as “gym-nay-sium teacher”. It’s an instant mood-lifter; I still laugh every time I think about it.
Monster-in-Law, released in 2005, is also in my DVD collection. The film is entirely bland, another nice movie about a flighty young thing mesmerizing a cute rich guy with her free spirit and pigtails. Yet, it is a multi-viewable good time thanks to Jane Fonda’s hilarious performance as Jennifer Lopez’s manipulative, sadistic, drunken bitch of a potential mother-in-law. Fonda sheds her usual on-screen sophistication in a way as funny and daring. Few actors of her vintage display their crow’s feet and saggy arm skin. She was so arch and delicate, like she was winking at us, well aware that this wasn’t The China Syndrome.
The stakes change somewhat when the bad film isn’t a comedy. Directed by Iain Softley, The Skeleton Key is about Caroline (Kate Hudson), a nurse who wants to “help people” and ends up caring for the invalid Ben (John Hurt), in his New Orleans plantation home. His wife, Violet (Gena Rowlands), is standoffish towards Caroline until the first plot twist dictates she suddenly treat her like a daughter, letting her in on the house’s deep dark secrets. Caroline digs too deep into this spooky history, unleashing hoodoo spells and all manner of historically resonant badness. As contrived as Ehren Kruger’s script may be, the movie doesn’t fall into 2005’s horror-flick trough of shite, thanks to Hudson’s remarkably low-key performance. Even when faced with dark corners and fake scares, she retains her cool. And when she eventually does begin screaming like a mad thing, she’s genuinely affecting. Contrasting Hudson’s eerie calm with, say, Elisha Cuthbert’s brashness in House of Wax, you discover the key to first class thriller acting. Every line Cuthbert utters seems affected: she’s not immersed in this film’s freak town. And, so, when the wax starts melting, we’re happy enough to see her get it. Hudson’s performance, by contrast, is so subtle that we don’t judge Caroline or second-guess her actions. Her face reveals curiosity as she struggles to open the attic door, and when Violet comes at her with all sorts of bluster, she lets it wash over her, with a reasonable seeming instinct for self-preservation. Like Jessica Biel’s Erin in Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Eliza Dushku’s Jessie in Wrong Turn (both 2003), Hudson suggests an understanding of what it means to be a scream queen: you have to be sympathetic, vulnerable but resilient.
In The Amityville Horror, a remake of the 1979 film, Ryan Reynolds’ George Lutz is less resilient, but also plainly vulnerable. Plus, Reynolds is always fun to watch, confident and charming. He has transferred this particular talent from tv (Two Guys, a Girl, and a Pizza Place) to the movies. Indeed, his charisma has sustained many a crapfest, including Van Wilder or the dopey Buying the Cow. He stands out in better films, too, like Finder’s Fee (2001) and this year’s good-but-not-great School of Life.
For all his experience in comedies, as Lutz, Reynolds needs to appear menacing and cruel without a hint of silliness. Somehow—and I’ll be pondering this for years—he did it. The inanity of the whole thing—the cupboard ghosts, the babysitter’s death, the introduction of Father Callaway (Philip Baker Hall) too far into the film to be of any consequence—are all serious distractions. (There are more laughs in this movie than Ryan’s 2005 comedies, Waiting and Just Friends, combined.) But Reynolds’ powder-keg ferocity makes it easier to ignore the stupid CGI scares and the been-there-done-that ghosts, and attend instead to his onslaughts, from the odd shout at George’s wife (Melissa George) to backhanders to his bratty kids. Put an axe in the guy’s hand and it’s edge of your seat excitement. Like Fonda, Reynolds sheds his familiar persona and like her, he is the only reason to watch the film.
The Skeleton Key and the Amityville remake are not so much saved by decent performances as they’re made more endurable. As remakes, lame comedies and poorly plotted thrillers will be with us for the foreseeable future, at least we can look forward to something—or someone.