Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Evil of Expectations

I don’t normally get excited by big studio releases, but my blood is pumping fast over the opening of Terminator: Salvation, and not because it stars my favorite short-tempered Newsie. Based on the previews and early reviews, this is the Terminator film I’ve been craving since the world got its first peek of the tech savvy apocalypse in 1981. Though rife with garbled Schwarzeneggerian-isms, the recent third installment was an aching disappointment for me because I had to wait 2+ hours to reach that plot. And then the movie ended. 

Quite simply, it wasn’t the story I wanted to see. I know, who am I, some lowly copy editor and amateur bloggist, to give screenwriting advice to a multimillion dollar franchise. I am one fan. But all this giddiness at Memorial Day’s big release did get me thinking quite selfishly, of other films that had potential, but failed my personal expectations, not by quality but in the basic plot and direction.

1)In the Mouth of Madness

John Carpenter changed the scope of horror filmdom with Halloween and made Rogaine evil in Body Bags . The guy knows how to make a good movie, but more importantly, the dude can create unique cinema with philosophically evocative messages disguised as blue collar shoot ‘em ups or old fashioned bloodbaths. This 1995 horror stars Sam Neill as an insurance investigator who gets wrapped up in a mass market paperback inspired apocalypse (the worst kind there is, of course). Hidden under gooey monsters and ax-wielding extras, Carpenter makes a few passing statements about modern hero worship using a Stephen King stand-in that has developed such a strong literary following, he’s attained deity status.

In an age where a former coke addicted cheerleader spent 8 years as the symbol of family values, a presidential candidate gets his face branded on condoms, and the general public is more invested in the results of American Idol than the Iraq War, the possiblility that Dan Brown or J.J. Abrams could crown (or become) the next messiah is relevant and realistic. For a while, it seems as though In the Mouth of Madness will explore what happens when enough people believe someone to be a god. The possibilities of such a story direction are promising, but sadly, Carpenter doesn’t quite find it material enough for plotting. Instead, our final 20 minutes tiptoe away from the thought-provoking religious questions to plunge headfirst into monster mash territory, finally drifting away into rehashed The Twilight Zone territory. 


It’s not that a film about Nazi-bred elves, set in a shopping mall, and featuring Grizzly Adams as a heroic Santa Clause is a bad thing. I don’t know about you, but I find such a plot possible of yielding the greatest film of all time. If, of course, it actually had elves. But there’s just one, making this not only a disappointingly bad film but, far more offensively, a disappointingly bad, deceptively titled film. For shame.

There are quite a few F13 films I could have included in this category--the unFeldmaned Part V and my personal favorite, Jason Takes a 20 Minute Layover in Vancouverish Manhattan come to mind--but the 2009 remake/reboot/reshit is, is my opinion, utterly deplorable for failing blandly in two ways: it was neither affectionately nostalgic nor actually scary. In fact, it was everything I had feared it would be, minus the claw-my-own-eyes-out PG13 rating. I didn’t expect a remake of a never-that-good series to be cinematic gold, but a little energy, a little more intelligence, a smidgen of creativity, and, I don’t know, a utilized wood chipper could have at least merited the title of ‘reboot’ over ‘eleventh sequel.’

4) The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning

Despite my grudging approval of the TCM remake, I had little expectations for this quick followup...that is, until I found out it would be a prequel centering on the origin of Leatherface. I like my cannibalistic cross dressers as much as the next gal, so imagine my excitement at seeing what I hoped would be a Glen Or Glenda-ish romp with a few Sears sponsored dismemberments tossed in. Sadly, Leartherface’s wonder years are quickly flashed through to get to the more telegenic and less interesting Jordana Brewster and her typical Abercrombie (but soooo 70s) friends. While I love me some scarily screaming R. Lee Ermey, this “beginning” ends up doing what every single entry in this five film franchise has done before.

Love it or hate it, you have to admit Zombie may have been onto something when he decided to explore the childhood sociopathy of Michael Meyers. With genre nobleman Malcolm McDowell cast as Dr. Loomis and young Tyler Mane providing some genuine misfit youthfulness, Zombie had the makings of something different. It’s just too bad he tried to cram it into 45 minutes, saving the second 45 for an unlikable Laurie Strode’s whining. Ultimately, Zombie’s film is torn between the chance it wants to take and yet another glossily gory reshoot studios love to push. 

7) Moscow Zero

Key words on Netflix synopsis: Val Kilmer as an evil gatekeeper to hell, which is apparently located under the Moscow subway (I’ve been there and it’s entirely believable)
Actually watching Moscow Zero: 90 minutes of black and blue scenery that’s barely visible, dialogue that’s nonsensical, and an early night’s sleep for me

8)Flowers in the Attic

As a well-read adult, I can now admit that V.C. Andrews adolescent exploitation is not quite Pulitzer worthy, but as a 14 year old whose previous girl-powered literature featured spunky babysitters, the Dollanger saga was engrossing, disturbing, and absolutely incredible. The film adaptation? None of those things. Victoria Tenant and Louise Fletcher are perfectly cast as old money matriarchs all too eager to lock four fair-haired children in a room for four years. Screenwriter and director Jeffrey Bloom, however, never seemed to grasp what made the novel resonate with millions of readers. It wasn’t just the setup; it was Cathy’s narration as a feistily flawed young woman stuck experiencing puberty while playing an elaborate game of house with her siblings. Andrews captures what it means to grow up, while using gothic drama as an exciting backdrop. Bloom makes a badly paced TV movie that skims on story, character, and ultimately feels like a melodrama about a retired Nurse Ratched being crabby to her too-cute grandkids. 

9) Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2

Juggernaut: An overwhelming, advancing force that crushes or seems to crush everything in its path
Flop: a complete failure

A quick revisit to Burkitsville was inevitable following the yet-to-be-matched blasting success of 1999’s found footage horror. Filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez could have taken the easy route with a linear follow-up or Ginger Snaps Back style prequel, so it’s admirable that they tried something different. If only this meta sequel were any good. Any. (By any, I mean as little as .000001%). I include this film here not because of its fairly creative plot--obnoxious fans of the actual film camp out on location and subsequently meet their inner crazy and/or pissed off spirit of the unseen title femme--but because its script failure was so grandiose, it nearly guaranteed the death of any sequels that dared to try something new. Had Book of Shadows been executed with more skill, I sometimes imagine a better world, one with less I Still Know What You Did Back In the Day When People Careds and more Wes Craven’s New NIghtmares. Only with better films. 

10) Westworld

Dear Michael Bay,
You don’t know me and I don’t particularly like you. I’m sure you’re a nice enough man who pets the occasional puppy, but in all honesty, you’ve made some obscene errors when it comes to remaking films. Before you defend yourself with the adequate reincarnation of Leatherface, let me silence you with two words that, once uttered, should never be spoken of again: The. Hitcher. 

Now. This world believes in second chances (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Mickey Rourke) and so I’m inviting you to take one by keeping your finely lotioned hands off of actual good classics like Rosemary’s Baby and focusing on some lesser fare of the past. See, there’s this film about robots--whoa, settle down Mikey. Don’t point that CGI-shooting laser gun at me. It’s rude. And shiny. As I was saying, these robots, they look like you or me, but cooler. Much, much cooler. Ukranian cowboy cooler. 

So the film is Westworld and it was directed, well, kind of poorly, by the very smart Michael Crichton. The idea is brilliant: in the future, amusement parks take fantasy to a new level by creating historical settings with human-looking androids catering to your every whim. You know, DIsneyland with a Mickey Mouse that actually talks rather than flailing his arms around like an overgrown stuffed animal. Oh. And you can have sex with them. Maybe not Mickey, although perhaps you can arrange some sort of porn tie-in. That’s your business and probably a very lucrative one at that.

Anyway, the movie has great elements but needs a redo. Instead of one lonely (albeit awesome) gunslinger chase, give us an all-out war between pampered park guests and terminator-infused cowboys, gladiators, and medieval knights. Cloning Yul Brynner would be ideal and it’s not like budgeting is an issue. Since the androids are supposed to look like humans, it’s not like you have to throw money away on special effects and believe it or not, it is possible to NOT blow up stuff in this one, as Romans and Greeks were not especially known for explosions. Should you want to pop in a few gunpowdery puffs in Westworld, I certainly can't stop you. But my robot can if you remake the wrong film. Stick to what's flawed. 

Thoughts, my friends? Movies that just didn’t deliver what you wanted/expected/demanded from that special place you call Imagination? And how likely is it that I’ll be reposting a followup expressing disappointment in the salvation of androids?


  1. Just stumbled across this very old post and wanted to ask if you've seen the Westworld tv series since you wrote this. I highly recommend it, even though the first two seasons follow a Twin Peaks-ish arc (first season is awesome, second one goes off the rails but pulls it together somewhat at the end). There's a third season coming out soon but no Anthony Hopkins in it, which doesn't bode well.

    1. I do! And I loved the first season, but I hate how overcomplicated they decided it had to be. Season 2 lost me, but I'm going to give 3 a few episodes to see. I appreciate a complex story, but I hate how hard the show works to remove any stakes.