Thursday, August 27, 2009

Marcia Marcia Marcia!

It must be hard to be the ugly twin. Humans are insecure enough without the constant reminder that someone with all the same potential is using it in a better way. Likewise, Hollywood is often prone to birthing a pair of fraternal films that share a unique or timely concept. Because us audiences are generally unable to tell Bill Paxton apart from Bill Pullman, the very idea of similarly plotted films often feels cruel and intolerable, thus dooming one to certain box office death. We’ve seen it in the art houses when the mighty Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Capote slew poor little Toby Jones’ Infamous. and we’ll soon be served with two dueling helpings of Sherlock Holmes. In terms of genre cinema, here are a few examples of double features and some thoughts on how time has aged them.

1996: Independence Day / Mars Attacks
Connection: hostile aliens, ensemble casts, big budget
With the economy booming and humans enjoying themselves way too much on that new toy called the Internet, the film gods looked upon us and decided the world needed a serious beatdown. Aliens of all sizes were lining up to do some damage and while I hate to project a stereotype on any species, everybody knows that extraterrestrials do not respect the rules of the queue. The long-legged villains of Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day naturally took the lead over Tim Burton’s goofy little bobbleheads by premiering on its namesake holiday (hear that, Rob Zombie?). The July 4th opening famously cemented Will Smith’s Uncle Sammish reign over the start of summer, while Mars Attacks thudded into the Christmas Season. Whoulda thunk seeing the world vaporized by country music hating bug-eyed gremlins wouldn’t be popular with the mall-going December crowd? 

13 years later... While Independence Day has racked up its share of well-deserved criticism (golden retrievers with great timing, Harvey Fierstein's gravely whining, and an advanced inter-galaxy traveling species without Norton Anti-virus protection are just the start), the effects have aged decently enough and the initial attack still feels appropriately exciting to a popcorn munching, belief suspending viewer. Modern viewers are justified in scoffing at the faux nationalistic spirit and hokey pro-America attitude, but the rash of big dumb action flicks it has since inspired look and sound so much worse, it’s hard to claim Independence Day has aged poorly. Similarly, Mars Attacks remains a polarizing film, respected by some as a clever piece of pop art lampooning B-movies and hated by others as an overlong and overloud slog far less entertaining than it thinks it is. All in all, history and now remain in sync. 

Sixth Sense / Stir of Echoes
Connection: ghosts, haunted little boys, working class
1999 was a fantastic year for movies, so it’s natural that a few merely good ones might slip through the cracks. David Koepp’s Stir of Echoes, a surprisingly effective--if not overwhelmingly awesome--ghost story was thus doomed by its release date and four little whispered words: “I see dead people.” Talk about bad luck. M. Knight Shayamalan’s blockbuster juggernaut changed the nature of twist endings and helped--briefly--to restore some mainstream cred to scary cinema. It packed astonishing performances, oozy atmosphere, and one of the biggest shocks of its time. Stir of Echoes, on the other hand, was a solid little thriller aided by its blue collar setting and Kevin Baconness, yet limited by a familiar plot and Law & Order: SVU ish resolution. 

10 years later... While it’s certainly true that M. Knight can’t brag about spawning a Rob Lowe starring sequel, The Sixth Sense remains an admirable film that lives up to its hype. Despite the well-deserved backlash against the director’s later works and the fact that everybody and their kittens knows the twist, some memorable scenes--such as Cole's offscreen tussle with a servant in a friend's attic--still provide genuine chills. Stir of Echoes now gets the obligatory "Oh yeah, that was a good one" nod from later viewers. It certainly holds up as an effective thriller and makes for a decent night's viewing, but it remains a humble pearl in a year of gems.

Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors  /Bad Dreams
Connection: See below
It’s not surprising that a studio would want to market its film to subconsciously remind audiences of the most sucessful franchise of the 80s, but it sure is unfortunate that a haunting and well-acted thriller like 1988’s Bad Dreams (yes, your thesaurus is correct in noting that those words are a synonym for ‘nightmare’) would be dismissed as a quick cash-in to Freddy Krueger’s third and, according to many, best outing into Springwood. Really, the similarities between the films are surface just happens that the surface is really thick:
-Both are set in the psychiatric wing of a laxly run mental asylum and focus on a diverse group of unstable patients
-Both share a middle aged male villain who died by fire and now wears some badass burns
-Both feature an elaborate collection of insanely creative deaths wrongly dubbed as suicides
-Both star Jennifer Rubin

You can see how an theater patron might get confused and ultimately choose the more familiar, if much wordier, title. And they did.

21 years later...Most fans of Freddy still contend that the Frank Darabont co-penned Part 3 is heads (perhaps even pizza topping heads) above other 6 sequels). At the same time, Bad Dreams continues to slowly win approval from late blooming DVD renters. Once removed from its Krueger connection--especially since, despite its title, there are no actual rapid eye movement set scenes--Bad Dreams does stand on its own as a solid 80s entry into the horror world. 

The Zombie Diaries / Diary of the Dead
Connection: title, downbeat ending, found footage device
The word 'diary' is associated more with a fourteen year old girl than gruesome flesh eater (I'm waiting for a truly sick combination of the two, by the way). In 2008, however, video journals were all the rage in the zombie genre. George Romero's pseudo guerilla style documentary hogged the theatrical attention, receiving a fair amount of critical praise but loads of hatred from the general horror community. Michael Bartlett and Kevin Gates’s British anthology, The Zombie Diaries, on the other hand, found its audience a month or year or two later (all depending on which country you call home) on DVD, where podcasts, blogs, and other webbish forms of communication spread that this was in fact one of the best zombie films in years. 

One year later...It's too soon to really call a winner here, but history is already warming up to favor The Zombie Diaries over the far too dated Diary of the Dead (even the Myspace reference feels like a relic a mere year later). Then again, when both films utilized a filming style that had and has since reared its shaky head in Cloverfield, REC, Quarantine, District 9, our sensitive stomachs can only wait and see what the world will make of home movie horror.  

I'm sure there is a shoe closet full of other pairs I'm forgetting, so add below and declare your winners.

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