There is no movie that embodies the spirit of Halloween more than Mike Dougherty’s 2007 cult-classic Trick ‘R’ Treat. For lovers of the holiday, the film feels like a giant amalgamation of all the different aspects of Halloween that give us those nostalgic, warm and fuzzy feelings. Well, maybe more cold and bloody, than warm and fuzzy, but nonetheless Trick ‘R’ Treat is an anthology film that remains an assorted candy bag with something for every horror fan. Monsters, serial killers, ghosts, zombies? This movie has got them all and more! While there are many contenders, no horror movie will get you in the mood for the holiday more than Trick ‘R’ Treat!
(P.S. This movie made it to #2 of our 31 days of Horror films. To find out the other 30 films that made the cut, check out this month’s Blog Post at the link below)
From master of horror, Stephen King, comes Misery; a story that unfortunately remains relevant as ever as it speaks to the very WORST side of fandom possible. This audiobook, takes King’s scariest book and truly places you in the point-of view of its protagonist Paul Sheldon. Thanks to some incredible voice acting work from Lindsay Crouse, you will absolutely lose yourself in the story and feel as though it is you being held prisoner by Annie Wilkes. This is one of my favorite audiobooks I have ever listened to as it creates one of the most intimately frightening experience a listener could experience.
While it’s more inspired by Shirley Jackson classic book than it is a pure adaptation, the Haunting of Hill House is a great haunted house series following the Crane family and their coping with grief.
Award-winning Young Adult author Voight initiates the “Tillerman Cycle” with an exciting modern-day adventure that takes 13-year-old Dicey and her three siblings from Connecticut to Maryland’s Eastern Shore—on foot. Abandoned by their mentally unstable mother, they seek a new home with a grandmother they’ve never met. How would you undertake a 338-mile trek with no money and little protection from the elements or people of dubious character?
Beautifully photographed PBS documentary surveying the varied environments composing our most populous state: Pacific Ocean and the restoration of coral reefs, whales and sea lions; Yosemite National Park; the redwoods; rivers; and increasing population of elk in protected areas.
If you would rather watch a screwball comedy instead of a horror movie around Halloween, then this movie is a good pick! Veronica Lake plays a witch that falls in love with a descendant of a puritan that she cursed centuries earlier.
Carolyn Kang does a good job narrating this fantasy set in China. Ning competes in a magical tea competition to try and get a cure for her poisoned sister. Court intrigue makes it hard for her to know who, if anyone, she can trust.
The leaves have changed their colors, the air is crisp, and every item in the grocery store aisle is now available in pumpkin flavor. If you’re like me, you can’t wait for Autumn to arrive. It means you can finally ditch your swim suit for those comfy fall sweaters and flannels; it means warming up with hot soups and ciders; but most of all, it means Halloween is finally on its way.
From the very first time I ever threw on a costume and went Trick-or-Treating, Halloween has always been my favorite day of the year. There is no day more theatrical, more indulgent, more in the spirit of good, weird fun than Halloween. It’s a celebration of our primal fascination with the things that scare us and an acknowledgement that many, such as myself, LOVE that feeling of scaring ourselves. Like many of you, that love for this holiday evolved into a love of the genre of horror. So, while I am sadly too old to dress up like Jason Voorhees and knock on my neighbors door demanding candy, I am NOT too old to compile a massive list of Horror films to binge my way through from now to November 1st. Since hanging up my mask, Halloween has become my yearly hunt for new or previously unseen Horror flicks to get me in the holiday spirit.
This year I want to share that list with you, in hopes that you may find some new favorites. And as someone who wants to make Halloween stretch out as long as possible, I am giving you 31 movies to watch; one for each day of October. So enough of the preamble; it’s time to get on with the scares!
This animated mini-series, which debuted on Cartoon Network back in 2014, is quietly one of the best, most fully-realized, and lovingly-crafted pieces of art of the last 20 years. Pulling its inspirations from illustrations by Gustave Doré, Hans Christian Anderson, children’s books of the 1800s, folk art and American music from the early 20th century, the series crafts an atmosphere that is at once both undeniably familiar and singularly unique.
The show features an incredible voice cast starring Elijah Wood, Melanie Lynskey, Christopher Lloyd, Tim Curry, and John Cleese. However, it is undeniable that the show’s true stand out is Elijah Wood’s 9 year old co-star Collin Dean who steals absolutely every scene he is in. Unlike most of today’s children’s programing, this series feels like a return to a time when children’s stories had genuine moments of fright and suspense. The gorgeous, rich, art design of the series is steeped in autumnal imagery, making it a perfect watch to get you and your family in the mood for the fall and Halloween season. For a more in depth review of this series check out this month’s blog post all about it by clicking the link below!
The fifth and most recent album from one of this generation’s most singular and consistently evolving artists, Florence Welch. Dance Fever delivers the same amount heart-swelling, emotional vocals and synth-rock bangers that fans come to expect from a new Florence and the Machine album while adding plenty of new colors to the band’s ever-expanding palette. Welch’s lyrics, in particular, reach a new stratosphere with this album, especially on tracks such as “Dream Girl Evil” and “King”, giving Dance Fever a level of richness that can only be mined from multiple listens.
His facility with planning large operations, Adolph Eichmann ingratiated himself with such murderous Nazi delinquents as Reinhard “The Butcher” Heydrich and Heinrich Himmler, for whom he designed extermination camps for Jews and other “undesirables.” Escaping from Europe at the close of the World War II, Eichmann made his way to Argentina, where in 1959 he was kidnapped by Israeli security personnel and transported to Tel Aviv by plane and tried for, among other charges, crimes against humanity, and he was executed by hanging in 1962. Hunting Eichmann reads like a thrilling spy novel, but it’s all true and hard to put down.
One of the seminal action films for Steve McQueen and director Sam Peckinpah. Getting the money, losing the money, getting it back again, and making the getaway. Violent and occasionally amusing, as when on the train McQueen pummels a grinning Richard Bright (the Corleone family’s favorite hitman) who can’t believe he’s stumbled onto a stash of cash, and when McQueen and Ali McGraw slide from a garbage truck into a landfill.
Charlton Heston was a leading man in his first movie, the noir Dark City (1950), and in 1952 famed director Cecil B. DeMille chose him to headline The Greatest Show on Earth, the eventual Best Picture Academy Award winner. That led to another DeMille epic, The Ten Commandments (1956) with Heston as Moses. Heston’s physical stature was perfect for such films, as Laurence Olivier observed. In 1959 he won the Best Actor Academy Award for the title role in that most honored Biblical extravaganza, Ben-Hur. That was followed in 1961 by yet another medieval epic, El Cid, with Heston as the Spanish knight negotiating his way between Christian Castile and the Muslims controlling southern Spain. On a more modest scale came The War Lord (1964). The knight Chrysagon (Heston) is entailed with protecting a Norman community threatened by Frisian marauders.
An assortment of roles followed in various genres, some good, like the western Will Penny (1968), some merely fair like the WW II suspense film, Counterpoint, also 1968.
The third time was the charm: Planet of the Apes. Writer and teacher Robert Castle wondered if Apes won the Honorary Academy Award for Makeup because the voters thought the primates in the same year’s 2001: A Space Odyssey were actual apes! So, 1968 was a key year in science fiction, which had been playing second fiddle to Hammer Studios’ horror films in the realm of the fantastic. Apes and 2001 resuscitated the genre, and both were commercial successes.
In his autobiography In the Arena, Heston said after finishing the Planet of the Apes shoot on schedule he had a drink with director Franklin Schaffner and told him, “I smelled a hit in this from the beginning,…” He was correct. “It not only grossed enormous numbers, it created a new film genre: the space opera.”
In 1971 the second outing in what would be a sci-fi triptych for Heston was The Omega Man, a new version of Richard Matheson’s tale of a future earth after a biological holocaust decimated the population and turned some into mutants—or vampires. It followed the Italian rendering, The Last Man on Earth (1964) with Vincent Price and preceded the high tech I Am Legend (2007) with Will Smith. The Omega Man has several gripping scenes, e.g., Heston driving through a desolate Los Angeles; pulling a sheet from what he imagined to be couple of mutants but instead discovers the desiccated corpses of two lovers; battling his way back into his garage at nightfall against the crazed, robed and anti-technology survivors of the plague who now call themselves the “Family.” Ron Grainer’s score enhanced the action.
In In the Arena, Heston said the shoot went smoothly and swiftly and was his first hit in four years. He liked the final product. “It’s become something of a cult film since, still pumping in checks every so often. I think we’d had a chance to make a really fine film of Omega, but I was quite willing to settle for a merely successful one at the time.
Soylent Green (1973) was, like The Omega Man, a bit “under-funded” but nevertheless possessed of some arresting scenes. Heston played Detective Thorn, who in 2022 investigates a murder that leads to a shocking revelation. Just what is the stuff people are eating? Issues tackled include overpopulation, dying oceans, pollution, and the greenhouse effect. Sound familiar?
Heston, Charlton. The Actor’s Life: Journals 1956-1976. 1978.
On November 3rd of 2014, an animated mini series called Over the Garden Wall was unceremoniously released onto Cartoon Network with almost no fanfare or hype, despite a cast which featured the likes of Elijah Wood, Christopher Lloyd, and John Cleese. The mini-series seemed to simply roll in with the autumn wind and ever since its brief 10-episode run from November 3rd to November 7th, it has become beloved as an autumnal re-watch, building legions of fans with each passing year. So what is it about this humble little “cottage-core” show that has caused it to amass such a massive fan base?
If you have never seen Over the Garden Wall, the story follows two children: Wirt (voiced Elijah Wood) and his much younger half-brother Gregory (voiced by Collin Dean), who have found themselves lost within a mysterious forest called “The Unknown”. With the aide of a talking bluebird named Beatrice (Melanie Lynskey), the boys try to find their way back home through the increasingly weird and spooky situations that each new environment thrusts them into. Each episode is structured around the trio wandering into a radically different area of The Unknown where they will encounter new characters, new problems to solve, and new clues to help solve the overarching mystery of the woods.
On paper that may seem like a fairly vague and possibly even “garden-variety” fairytale structure, but the success of Over the Garden Wall comes from its unique voice, proving that how a story is told is just as important as the story itself. Over the Garden Wall is primarily the brainchild of it’s creator and showrunner Patrick McHale, a man who was no stranger to the world of children’s animation or Cartoon Network for that matter. Prior to Over the Garden Wall, McHale had already built a strong relationship with Cartoon Network, previously working on such series as The Misadventures of Flapjack and the cultural phenomenon that was Adventure Time; a show whose style of humor and visual aesthetic still serves as the main influence on the landscape of modern children’s cartoons. It feels important to note Adventure Time, in particular, as it may be the closest comparison point that comes to mind when recommending this series. However, I would argue that the similarities between the two begin and end with their post-modern sense of humor, which bounces back and forth between being completely earnest one moment and joyfully flippant in the next. When it comes to their visual aesthetics, however, the two shows are night and day. Where Adventure Time’s art design is extremely modern, deploying its bright neon color palate to craft an environment so sugary it could give you a cavity, Over the Garden Wall is decidedly old-fashioned and familiar. Many fans have commented on their love for the atmosphere and art design of Over the Garden Wall, specifying that it manages to feel extremely familiar while remaining deceptively hard to identify what is so familiar about it. According to McHale, the show’s aesthetic was the culmination of a variety of different influences “including children’s books of the 1800s, folk art and American music from the early 20th century” (Day, 2014, para. 6). In a 2014 interview with the Los Angeles Times, McHale states “There are a lot of layouts borrowed from Gustav Doré . . . And also from Disney’s early ‘Alice’ shorts” (Day, 2014, para. 7).
For those who may be unaware Gustav Doré was a French illustrator renowned for wood-engraved illustrations. Some examples of his work can be seen in “The Divine Comedy” and “Paradise Lost”. As for the Disney Alice shorts’; in the 1920s, the Walt Disney company made shorts that were half live-action and half animated. Some other notable artistic influences are illustrations from old Hans Christian Andersen stories such as The Tinderbox, the “Dogville Comedies” shorts, vintage Halloween postcards, and chromolithography. All of these different visual influences become enmeshed to create the overall look of the show and it is truly astonishing how well each one fits together and serve to compliment each other. It is this level of care and detail that manages to serve the overall mood of the story; a seemingly warm and friendly mood that contains unexpected complexities and dimensions for both its characters and the story itself.
Visual Influences of Over the Garden Wall
One such added dimension is that the show takes on a noticeably darker tone with each episode, giving its protagonists real stakes and imbuing their circumstances with tangible weight. While a perfectly appropriate show for most families to watch together, there does tend to be some darker elements involving spooky situations or creepy looking monsters that may prove a bit too scary for some of the younger viewers. However, it is these surprisingly darker elements that make the program feel truly unique among much of today’s children’s programs; many of which avoid age-appropriate elements of suspense and horror all together for fear of negative backlash. This well intentioned choice can unfortunately result in content that talks down to children or patronizes them.
While the show arguably never strays too far into the Horror genre, it does allow itself to provide moments of true suspense and age-appropriate scares. This choice is one that is very much fitting with the subject matter of the show. McHale uses the more nightmarish imagery in a way that feels like he is acknowledging the roots of children’s fables from its earliest days. In fact, the majority of well-known children’s fairy tales are often greatly altered from the original versions which were often very horrific. (Look up the original versions of such stories as The LittleMermaid and Pinocchio if you don’t believe me.) While this is fun part of the show’s dynamic, the elements of horror would be nothing without the magic that lies at the heart of the story: the half-brothers Gregory and Wirt.
Moments of horror in Over the Garden Wall
Beyond the horror, beyond the humor, beyond the beautiful painted vistas of the show’s art direction; I believe that Over the Garden Wall has become a beloved piece of pop culture because of the story at its center: a story about the relationship between anxiety-ridden teenager Wirt and his silly, carefree, 5-year old brother Greg. There is something so simple, so elemental about their dynamic that their characters feel practically timeless. While much of their adventures has a humorous tone, the show does build to a truly cathartic and heartfelt conclusion which focuses heavily on the still newly burgeoning relationship between the two half-brothers. McHale and company do a truly great job developing such iconic new characters in Greg and Wirt that you instantly fall in love with; Greg in particular who was voiced by a real child which gives his character a special added layer of authenticity. In fact, even though seasoned veterans of the screen such as Wood and Lynskey deliver excellent performances, it is undeniably 9-year old Collin Dean (Greg) who steals the show.
In trying to synthesize why this mini-series has become a yearly re-watch for so many people, myself included, it is easy to see that there is a lot to love. It is genuinely funny for people of all ages; the art direction for the show is incredible; the central characters are lovable, and the performances are all top notch. But, if we are being completely honest, it’s also probably the fact that the show is brimming with Autumnal imagery and its the perfect thing to get you in the mood for the fall season.
So throw on your comfiest fall sweater, pour yourself some hot apple cider, and curl up with your family to start a new yearly ritual with this seasonal treat!
Day, P. K. (2014, October 3). ‘Over the Garden Wall’ gets lost in creator’s imagination. Retrieved September 21, 2022, from ‘Over the Garden Wall’ gets lost in creator’s imagination
As in many other fields, from politics to race to women’s rights and culture in general, the 1960s was a boiling cauldron. So it was with movies, often then given the more prestigious appellation, the cinema. The movies discussed below are those that transformed film, some in a minor, others in a major way.
In the sixties, film was taken more seriously by more people, especially coming of age baby boomers. The cinema was deemed worthy of deep examination. There was subtext. More and more books appeared on the shelves. Some were surveys (A Pictorial History of the Talkies), others star biographies (Citadel Press’s Films of… series, including Bogart, Dietrich, Garbo, Marx Bros.), still others academic investigations of film going back to the cinema’s origins (The Parade’s Gone By,Film: An Anthology).
Some sixties transformative films:
The Magnificent Seven (1960). How was this transformative? It paved the way for other movies in which a select team, expert in various combative skills, formed to tackle a specific problem. (See the blog post for April, 2022: “Single Mission Team Players.”) The Guns of Navarone (1961), The Dirty Dozen (1967), and more recently, Inception (2010) carried on this tradition. It is a phenomenon, not a genre, as it crosses boundaries.
Psycho (1960). Director Alfred Hitchcock, the “Master of Suspense,” took a more violent and edgy tack with this tale of a mother-fixated motel owner with distinctly misogynistic intentions. Hitchcock used his Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV crew, filmed in black and white, and gave his leading lady (Janet Leigh) short shrift. Soon imitations of lesser quality appeared, e.g., Homicidal, Blood Feast. In mid-decade slightly bigger budgets were given to what would one day be called “slasher” movies. These featured up-and-comers as well as older stars (Joan Crawford in Strait-Jacket and Berserk!, Olivia De Havilland and Bette Davis in Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte).
The Pit and the Pendulum (1961). Novelist Stephen King hit the nail on the head when in Danse Macabre he wrote that this was the first time a filmmaker (director Roger Corman) showed his audience true visual horror: a coffin, opened to reveal the female corpse within, buried alive as evidenced by her contorted face and hands petrified into claws, seeking to get out. Graphic horror was on the rise, never to cease.
West Side Story (1961). This was a movie for people who didn’t or didn’t think they liked musicals, especially teenage boys. It began with a bang: aerial shots over New York City that dropped closer and closer to street level and the crummy tenements wherein rival delinquent gangs, the Sharks (Puerto Ricans) and Jets (white teens), vied for control of the mean streets. When they started dancing, it was not seen as sissified.
Lawrence of Arabia (1962). The “thinking person’s epic” was director David Lean’s biography of T. E. Lawrence, who helped Arabs gain independence from the Turkish Ottoman Empire during World War I. Desert vistas never before filmed astounded audiences, Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif became stars, the film won Academy Awards. It remains a pinnacle of filmmaking.
Cleopatra (1963). Often denigrated and mistakenly deemed a financial flop, this version of the Egyptian queen’s rise and fall has an incomparable Alex North music score, more visual sweep than previous iterations, such as the 1934 Cecil B. DeMille version starring Claudette Colbert; the set-bound, George Bernard Shaw play-based Caesar and Cleopatra (1945) with Vivien Leigh; and the cheapjack 1953 Serpent of the Nile with Rhonda Fleming and…Raymond Burr as Antony! In reality, the 1963 version’s chief flaw is a dearth of battle action—and they had 3+ hours in which to do it. The making of it was an epic story in itself. The first director was fired, the first male cast dropped, filming switched providentially from England to Italy. Test photos of Joan Collins suggest she would have been well cast. In The Cleopatra Papers, publicists Jack Brodsky and Nathan Weiss concluded that a spectacle like this would not, could not, be made ever again.
Blow-Up (1966). David Hemmings’ photographer may have caught a murder on film but by gosh he can’t prove it. The Italian maestro Michelangelo Antonioni directed this, his first English-language film, to mostly critical praise, and though it was condemned by the Legion of Decency, MGM released it through a subsidiary. Like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate, the commercial and critical success of Blow-Up helped topple the hoary old Production Code in 1968.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966). It would be two years before the Motion Picture Association of America would institute a new rating system: G, M, R, X. So this adult film had disclaimers on its poster: “Suitable Only for Adults” and “Important Exception: No One Under 18 Will Be Admitted Unless Accompanied by His Parent.” The film would net Elizabeth Taylor a 2nd Academy Award. Her characterization of the foul-mouthed professor’s wife Martha was a far cry from Cleopatra.
The Graduate (1967). Like Who’s Afraid, this comedy-drama was a precursor to the barrier-breaking films that would appear in 1968 after institution of the new MPAA rating code. A generation of college students latched onto it, feeling a kinship with Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman in a star-making role) having no idea what to do with his life and finding himself seduced by an older woman with a daughter to whom he takes a shine.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Master director of Paths of Glory, Lolita and Dr. Strangelove, Stanley Kubrick turned his sights on the past and potential future of humankind. Many wondered what it meant and did not perceive Kubrick and science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke’s view that modern and future technology is a mixed blessing. (Think the now iconic HAL 9000, the mission’s computer gone insane.) Critical opinion was all over the map, but 2001 became a cause to celebrate for youth and after a slow start vied with the distinctly old-fashioned Funny Girl as the year’s top grosser. Indicative of the consternation it caused among critics and “anybody over 30,” 2001 was not nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award.
Bullitt (1968). A standard but compelling detective story hearkening back to postwar police procedurals like The Naked City and T-Men is highlighted by Bullitt’s (Steve McQueen) pursuit through San Francisco of a car carrying two hitmen. It remains the auto chase against which all others—and there have been many—are measured.
The Wild Bunch (1969). After the bloodbath that was 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde and the introduction of the MPAA code in 1968, director Sam Peckinpah created a new high in cinematic violence. In 1913, aging outlaws played by William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Ben Johnson and Warren Oates are initially unaware that they are a dying breed held together by a faulty code of honor among thieves. They have no hesitation in killing civilians when they rob banks or blow away army guards on a train carrying weapons they sell to a Mexican warlord. By the end, however, they intuit that their day is over and resign themselves to their grim fate. They’ll take many with them.
Midnight Cowboy (1969). The new rating code instituted in 1968 was still feeling its way, and Midnight Cowboy was given the X-rating as much for subject matter (a young Texas stud aims to make his fortune as a prostitute in New York and bonds with the tubercular con-man “Ratso” played by Dustin Hoffman) as for nudity or foul language. Years later clearer heads changed it to the more applicable R.
Easy Rider (1969). Dennis Hopper directed and co-starred with Peter Fonda in this unexpected biker hit and gave Jack Nicholson such a juicy part that he was immediately propelled into a star role and an Academy Award nomination for 1970’s Five Easy Pieces. Like The Graduate, Easy Rider decried a perceived loss of American innocence. Its success led studios to attempt to duplicate Rider’s grosses by funding any number of similarly negative “youth” productions such as The Strawberry Statement and The Last Movie that even at the time were seen by many as naïve or self-aggrandizing. (Peter Fonda had starred in another biker movie of note prior to Easy Rider: 1966’s The Wild Angels, whose claim to true significance is negated when Nancy Sinatra views Bruce Dern’s body and announces, “He’s wasted.” The first notable biker movie was 1953’s The Wild One with Marlon Brando.)
This film combines the stories and life of infamous Japanese Author Yukio Mishima into an absolutely stunning film, directed by Paul Schrader. Has some of my favorite production design, and is my all-time favorite film soundtrack.
The author of The Fault in Our Stars, Green offers an amusing and insightful take on various elements of our time, what is currently termed the Anthropocene, and ranks each on a 5-star scale. Topics include smallpox and pandemics, Canada geese, Indianapolis, typewriter keyboards, oddball roadside attractions, extinct Hawaiian birds, and Nathan’s hotdog eating contest. It sounds like therapy for Green, who admits to a lifetime of despair as well as hope.
To be read alongside Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind and Ed Yong’s An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us.
Paul Verhoeven’s satirical masterpiece about a future war between Earth’s military forces and a planet full of giant alien bugs! This movie is unlike anything I have ever seen; simultaneously existing as extremely high-brow and low-brow entertainment. Starship Troopers manages to be a big, loud, sci-fi action blockbuster, full of explosions, guns, and gore, while also serving as a scathing commentary on the military industrial complex and media propaganda. It is truly a film you can enjoy as either mindless fun or as a deeply cerebral experience. (See this month’s blog post for a deep dive on the context of this film’s history!)
Insane, Colorful, Action-Packed, and Hilarious!!! This game is a feast for the eyes; offering a wild, open-world ride that will entertain everyone from the lifelong gamer to the relative newbie. Traverse the cartoonish metropolis of Sunset City and fight off swarms of mutant zombies while grinding on telephone wires, leaping off skyscrapers, and firing an array of the weirdest assortment of weapons ever assembled in a video game!
Cary Grant is great in this film adaption of the humorous play. He stops by to visit his sweet, elderly aunts and discovers that they poison men and then put them in the cellar. Other people (including police) dropping by leads to humorous situations as Grant tries to figure out what to do.
Adjoa Andoh does a great job narrating this near-future SciFi novella. A child in Ghana becomes known as the adopted daughter of death due to her ability to kill. She goes on a journey for a mysterious seed after the death of everyone in her village.
I say this with zero sense of irony or hyperbole: Starship Troopers is a masterpiece of cinema, unlike anything that has ever been put to film.
Right now you might be thinking “Really? The movie where Earth sends a space military to kill a bunch of giant bugs? Isn’t that just a dumb action movie?” If so, you wouldn’t be alone. At the time of its release in November of 1997, audiences and critics alike immediately dismissed the film as just that; a poorly acted, over-the-top, mindless gore-fest. But don’t just take my word for it; here are some of the scathing reviews that Starship Troopers received when it was released…
“Cheerfully lobotomized” – LA Times.
“Exactly like Star Wars – if you subtract a good story, sympathetic characters, intelligence, wit and moral purpose” – Washington Post.
“crazed, lurid spectacle”… “raunchiness tailor-made for teen-age boys.”- Janet Maslin, The New York Times
“a nonstop splatter-fest so devoid of taste and logic that it makes even the most brainless summer blockbuster look intelligent.”-Jeff Vice, the Deseret News
“one-dimensional,” a trivial nothing “pitched at 11-year-old science-fiction fans.” -Roger Ebert.
While I hate to admit it, I heaped my own similar criticisms at the film when it first came out. I was about twelve years old when I first saw Starship Troopers (which, in retrospect, was way too young). My dad had rented it from our local video store and, like most audiences, we were expecting a fun, sci/fi action romp; a Star Wars for this generation. I remember my excitement for it; the movie I had in my head that the previews had promised. I was fully prepared for a serious movie about tough, cool, space soldiers; the grunts fighting on the front lines of a futuristic war against hordes of giant alien bugs. I imagined it was going to be like James Cameron’s hit sequel Aliens, but with the space marines as the focus of the whole movie. When you get a sense of those expectations, it may be easy to understand why watching StarshipTroopers for the first time was bound to be a confusing and disappointing experience.
From the very opening of the film, my adolescent expectations of the movie I wanted were instantly disrupted. The movie didn’t begin with some cool action sequence, showing off how awesome this futuristic military was; nor did it begin with some scary attack from the alien monsters to set up the horror of the film. Instead, the movie opens with a futuristic military advertisement for the “mobile infantry”. The commercial speaks directly to the viewer through a booming, cartoonishly heroic voice accompanied by the corniest patriotic anthem ever composed. The narrator tells the audience to “Join Up Now” and register for the Federation’s mobile elite. The commercial’s imagery is comprised of bright, cheery visuals of happy soldiers smiling directly at the camera, proudly stating “I’m doing my part!” We see kids in a park interacting with the friendly soldiers, who allow the excited children to hold their guns as they teach them how to aim. We see a group of school children cheerfully stomping on cockroaches while their teacher gleefully applauds them. The commercial shows us that even this little bit of bug-stomping helps, as the voice and text exclaim “They’re Doing Their Part! Are You?”
The film had not even reached the 5-minute mark and the circuitry in my pre-teen brain was frying. What was I looking at? Why did this movie look like a cheap, after-school special or like an episode of 90210? Why was the tone so bright and campy? As the movie went on, I found myself increasingly confounded at what I was seeing on screen. The performances ranged from incredibly campy to incredibly wooden and the violence went so far with its gore that it was both extremely upsetting and laughably over-the-top. By the time the movie was finished I remember my dad and I agreeing that it had to be one of the worst movies we had ever seen. So I closed the book on Starship Troopers, concluding that it was one of the worst and most mind-boggling approaches to a movie I had ever witnessed.
Even at that time, one thing I couldn’t deny was that it was memorable; if only in the way of never forgetting which restaurant gave you food poisoning. It left a strange impact on me in a way that I could not comprehend at that time. I knew that there was something upsetting about it. The visuals painted such a sunny, sit-com level atmosphere violently juxtaposed by some of the most disturbing images of gore that my eyes had ever seen. The result was a clash that my 12 year old brain did not have the room to accept or process. So, like many others at the time, I rejected it as a dumb war movie for jocks. It would not be until I was in college that I found myself coming back and giving the movie another chance.
A fellow movie-buff friend of mine told me that Starship Troopers was one of his favorite films of all time. At first, I assumed he was joking but the more we talked, the more it was clear that I needed a serious reassessment of this film. I had already been hearing rumblings about the movie slowly gaining status as a beloved cult film. My assumptions were that people must be appreciating the film on a level of “so bad that it is actually entertaining”, but my friend assured me this was not the case. It only took my first re-watch for the movie to unfold and finally make sense to me. I wasn’t watching a movie that was failing in an effort to be a populist action film; I was watching a movie succeed as a scathing satire; a critique of fascism, and the American military industrial complex. I could see why it went over so many heads when it came out and why so many people did not understand what the film was doing. Starship Troopers is a rare film; one that is so committed to the overall narrative gimmick of its thesis, so unwilling to “break character” or give the audience a reassuring wink that it knows what it’s doing is silly, that it sacrifices people not getting the joke. While this move didn’t pay off in box office sales, it has certainly earned the film serious street cred among cine-files who champion its unwavering artistic integrity.
For those who have never seen the film, Starship Troopers is (VERY loosely) based on the Robert Heinlein novel of the same name, which was written in 1959. I say “very loosely” because, while the surface details of the plot are more or less the same, the tone and intent behind Heinlein’s book, is radically different from the film. The story of Starship Troopers (both the book and film) is set in the distant future; one where humans have mastered space travel and used it to begin colonizing other worlds outside of our galaxy. Along the way, humans came across “Klandathu”, a planet located on the opposite end of our galaxy, populated by giant, bug-like aliens. Even though these giant alien insects are extremely deadly, Earth has attempted to colonize the planet anyway, provoking the otherwise benign species to violently retaliate against them. Instead of respecting the arachnids’ home planet and cutting their losses, they present the bugs’ act of defense as an act of war and use their global government known only as “The Federation” to pump a steady stream of “anti-bug” propaganda into all forms of media. In doing so, the Federation enlists wave upon wave of young recruits into its interstellar war, all of them eager at the chance to slaughter this species completely out of existence. Primary among these young recruits is: Johnny Rico; a regular teenager from Buenos Aires who registers into the mobile infantry, against the wishes of his parents. The story follows Rico through the hardships of war, as he rises up through the ranks and becomes molded into a perfect soldier of the Federation.
Film historians may instantly notice the similarities between the plot structure of the movie and that of a notoriously well-known propaganda film called Triumph of the Will, which was made in 1935 as a recruitment tool for the Nazi party. This is no accident, but rather the whole lynch-pin of director Paul Verhoeven’s radical approach in adapting this pulp science fiction novel into a big-budget motion picture. Rather than making a straight forward adaptation of Heinlein’s story, Verhoeven, who regards the source material as “boring [and] really quite a bad book”, set out to turn Starship Trooper’s extremely jingoistic, pro-war novel on its head. While the book treats its message at face value as something cool and heroic, the film is fully aware that Heinlein’s story is a fascistic nightmare. The magic of the this choice is that, instead of attempting to “fix” these problematic elements of the book, it fully leans into them, giving the audience a full view of what Heinlein’s “perfect” facsist, authoritarian Earth would actually look like. The end result is a planet where humans have no democracy, citizenship is guaranteed only through military service, and for all the dazzling futuristic advancements they have made in technology and medicine, all it’s good for is killing bugs. The journey and eventual victory of these protagonists is therefore not meant as something for audiences to cheer, but rather, it is a cautionary tale of what America could become. Verhoeven states, “I decided to make a movie about fascists who aren’t aware of their fascism . . . this was about American politics. As a European it seemed to me that certain aspects of US society could become fascistic: the refusal to limit the amount of arms; the number of executions in Texas [etc.] . . .” (Verhoeven, as cited in How we made starship troopers, 2018). Make no mistake, the “heroes” of Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers are Nazis, through and through. In one of the film’s final and most chilling moments, a commanding psychic officer stands before the “Brain Bug”, the giant slug-like monarch of the arachnid species, which has been captured and dragged out of its cave by the mobile infantry. It lays there surrounded by legions of armed Federation soldiers, trembling while this psychic officer (played brilliantly by Neil Patrick Harris) reads its mind. After a moment of silence, Harris’s psychic officer turns to the hordes of infantry men and women and proudly exclaims “IT”S AFRAID!!!!” which is met with exuberance, laughter, and practically euphoric elation from our heroes. If the film’s message had been lost on you before, this moment should make it clear: these people derive joy from witnessing the fear and suffering of their enemies.
Viewing the film now, its almost mind-boggling to know that this message seemed to sail past most American audiences, especially considering the blatant visual cues the film gives us. Take a look at Neil Patrick Harris’ character below, whose uniform is clearly a direct inspiration of the Nazi uniforms worn by the S.S.
“I borrowed from the films of Leni Riefenstahl to show that these soldiers were like something out of Nazi propaganda. I even put one in an SS uniform. But no one noticed”(Verhoeven, as cited in How we made starship troopers, 2018)
Verhoeven is a fascinating artist who brings with him an extremely unique perspective to aspects of American culture. Primarily, Verhoeven is continually drawn to our relationship with authoritarians, media consumption, patriotism, violence and fascism as can be seen in his previous films such as Robocop and Total Recall. His continued interest in exploring these themes and subjects has a large part to do with his childhood. Verhoeven is Dutch, and was born and raised under Nazi occupation of the Netherlands in the 1940s. His formative years were shaped by the most horrific display of fascism the world had ever seen and it has served to inform much of the art that he makes. In particular, much of his pitch black satirical sense of humor, his cavalier attitude towards violent imagery, and his penchant for maximalism likely all stem from being born into a place that is under Nazi rule. In this sense, I believe that Starship Troopers is oddly the most personal of Paul Verhoeven’s films. It serves to be the culmination of many of his points of interest as well as being the most direct statement against fascists in his body of work to date.
Starship Troopers is a film constructed to be two things at once. On one level the film exists as a satirical statement on the worst aspects of American patriotism and the dangers of succumbing to a militaristic rule. At the same time the movie has to exist and succeed as the very thing which it is satirizing: a big, loud, patriotic action movie. It was by design that the film would be advertised in this way; to convince American audiences (such as myself), that this was going to be a movie about our military kicking butt all over the galaxy. This appeal to our nationalistic tendencies and hunger for mindless action was, more or less, a Trojan Horse for Verhoeven to sneak in the real movie that he wanted audiences to see. That “real movie” which he successfully made is perfectly framed within the opening and closing device of the futuristic propaganda film. Verhoeven makes it clear that the entire film the audience is watching is all a part of this military recruitment advertisement. Johnny Rico and his friends, whether they are supposed to be film actors in a fictionalized recruitment ad or real people whose story is being filmed documentary style, are nevertheless all propaganda devices. By the end, we are reminded that our protagonist’s journey is structured with one goal in mind: to get you to join up into the ranks of the mobile elite. The film’s closing montage practically presents itself like that of a commercial for a series of action figures or a new video game, where you, yes-YOU, could be a hero just like the brave men and women of the Federation’s mobile elite! Are you a grunt infantry man like the heroic leader Johnny Rico? Maybe you want to be the wild man of the bunch like Johnny’s best friend Ace! Or are you the cerebral type? If so, you can be just like Carl, the Federation’s Psychic officer in the Games and Theory division. Regardless of what you are good at, the Federation will easily find a place for you. Verhoeven deftly handles these commercial sequences with the understanding of exactly how propaganda works. After all, he saw it happening first hand when he was a child.
In Verhoeven’s hands, the propaganda of this film is engineered in the same way real propaganda films work; by simplifying everything down to its basest level of black and white, good versus evil. It is articulated to prey upon our lethargy, our need for a simple, easy answer or a target to point our frustrations toward. Everything on Earth in this movie is presented as a very clean, futuristic, utopian society, down to the fact that all of our young protagonists look like living Barbie and Ken dolls. This is not an exaggeration, but rather a purposeful choice Verhoeven makes to support his overall thesis. It is also possibly his most divisive and extreme choice at that, but one which I truly believe serves to add to the film. While most movies are cast with attractive movie stars, Verhoeven’s casting process of this film was one which purposely sought out Hollywood’s most conventionally pretty actors/models, most of whom had limited acting experience. It is a choice that has its roots in the history of propaganda films as well as the visual shorthand from our oldest forms of storytelling, where all the heroes are good-looking and the villainous characters are hideous.
Most of the cast had previously acted on day time soap operas or prime-time teen romances like Beverly Hills 90210, such as two of its leads: Casper Van Dien and Denise Richards. Verhoeven chose this film’s crop of actors with the main vision that he needed actors who would have the look of people chosen for a propaganda film, and as is the case with most propaganda films, the looks would come first and would be the most important aspect. This tradition among propaganda films would typically lead to very wooden, stilted performances. Verhoeven knew that, while a potentially self-sabotaging choice for his own movie, it was an important ingredient for recreating the aesthetic of the propaganda film. His choice in casting went so far as to not even telling his actors they were making a satire because he needed his characters to believe in everything they were doing. These characters were not savvy to anything other than the world-view they had long been indoctrinated into. The end result of this choice lead to an ensemble of very limited actors, very much out of their depth, giving very campy performances, but this too is a critical component for the constructed reality of Verhoeven’s movie. He was recreating the aesthetic of these films and he recognized the performances as an extension of that aesthetic. While these choices would prove to be quite damning to the film’s immediate success in 1997, they would eventually help to preserve the film as one of the most uncompromising and bold approaches to a mainstream blockbuster film. It is very much worth noting that, since its release, Starship Troopers has had one of the greatest critical turnarounds in film history, with film fans from all over discovering it as a movie that was way ahead of its time which people are just now finally catching up to. Don’t just take my word for it, look at some of these recent reviews by critics that completely re-evaluate the film as high art…
“One of the most merciless satires of its time, Paul Verhoeven’s gung-ho, bug-squashing Reich-fest confused critics and audiences when it hit theaters in 1997; from the gruesome effects and rousing battle scenes to the insidiously quotable script (“Would you like to know more?”) and darkly stirring score, it’s just too damn well-made for its own good.”- Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, (2017) The AV Club
“… a ruthlessly funny and keenly self-aware sendup of right-wing militarism…[that] critiques the military–industrial complex, the jingoism of American foreign policy, and a culture that privileges reactionary violence over sensitivity and reason.”- Calum Marsh, The Atlantic
“The sci-fi satire arrived too early, and we’re hearing what it said 23 years too late.” – Joshua Rivera, The Verge
I won’t deny that a large part of my unbridled love for Starship Troopers comes from the odd journey I, and many others, have had with it over the years. I mean, how many films can you recall that began as the worst movie you had ever seen only to end up becoming one of your favorite movies 25 years later? On a broader level, I think a major reason why I love Starship Troopers so much is that, for me, it was the movie that completely upended my pre-existing notions of what movies were supposed to be. It challenged my way of thinking in many ways. It taught me the value of curiosity, of digging deeper into analysis before merely writing something off as “bad”. Most of all, my relationship to Starship Troopers taught me that changing my mind was not something to be embarrassed about, but to be embraced!
Ironically, for a movie about characters that treat the world with a simplistic black and white outlook,perhaps we have been too binary in our thinking on the films we consume. Sites like Rotten Tomatoes literally quantify a piece of art down to a percentage, awarding it either a “fresh” or “rotten” score. This site, along with social media sites such as twitter have given audiences much more of a voice and it has truly effected the film industry. Much like an algorithm, the film industry has attempted to cater to the audience’s tastes and demands. In recent years we have witnessed fan campaigns successfully force studio’s hands in releasing specific cuts of movies as well as completely reanimate a character for the entirety of a film that was already finished (Sonic the Hedgehog). While you may be glad that our blue furry friend finally resembled his video game counterpart, I cannot see this development as anything but extremely harmful to filmmaking. If I have learned anything from my humbling experience with Starship Troopers, it’s that I don’t always know what I want in a film. I may think that I do, but that very idea can change when presented with something new. In today’s “fan-driven” landscape, there is no way anything as daring, original, or as weird as Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers would ever make it into theatres, let alone at the scale and budget that it was made with. The current studio approach, which seeks to cater to fan-service or create an algorithm for “quality control”, may succeed in fewer films that turn out to be bombs at the box office, but it also sets very rigid parameters on the level of creativity, ingenuity and originality that a film can have. In conclusion, I believe that I would rather have a ton of movies being made that I see and I end up hating passionately, then very well-made movies that make me feel nothing at all. Starship Troopers instilled in me the belief that any film that garners a strong response from you, positive or negative, is one that is worthy of a reappraisal, a deeper investigation, a second chance. Who knows? Maybe the worst movie you ever saw is one re-watch away from becoming an all-time favorite.
A sophomore slump refers to an instance in which a second, or sophomore, effort fails to live up to the relatively high standards of the first effort. (1)
It’s exciting when a new filmmaker manages to make a big splash with their first film. An impressive debut can, and often does, generate a lot of interest from studios and audiences alike. For many movie lovers, it immediately elicits the following statement:
“I can’t wait to see what they do next….”
Suddenly, there is the burden of expectation. Audiences who loved a director’s first film are now excited by the prospect of a whole career of great films. Off of just one great movie, we begin crafting our own narratives, asking questions like “Could they be the next Speilberg? The new Hitchcock?” Unfortunately for most directors, the second movie is often the one that faces the most scrutiny. It could be the added pressure of audience expectations or working with an expanded budget; either way, the second time around proves to be one that rattles many film makers and results in movies that are more or less considered to be an underwhelming follow up. This has become known among film and music circles as the dreaded “sophomore slump”.
While the sophomore slump has been well documented in the film industry, there are plenty of examples of GREAT follow-up films; some of which have become remembered as the high mark in a director’s career. All these films can be found in the collection of our Chester County Library Catalogue.
This month we at the Chester County Library Multimedia Department are giving you a list that proves that sometimes second truly is the best.
In 1979, director Ridley Scott followed up his debut film The Duellists (1977), with the Sci-Fi Horror masterpiece Alien. The film went on to become an instant classic , spawning its own franchise of 5 subsequent sequels with more on the way. Scott continues to have one of the most prolific careers a director can ask for, with a lifetime of impressive credits including: Blade Runner, Legend, Thelma & Louise, 1492, White Squall, Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, Kingdom of Heaven, Prometheus, Alien: Covenant, All the Money in the World, The Last Duel and House of Gucci.
It is not easy carving a name out for yourself as a filmmaker. Now imagine how hard it would be, if your father was a director known for making what many consider the greatest film ever made: The Godfather… It is still astounding to me that Sofia Copolla climbed out of such a looming shadow as her father’s career and truly created a style of film making all her own. Her first film, The Virgin Suicides, proved to many that Sofia was a true talent and could make a great film. It was her second film, Lost in Translation, which cemented her as a legend in her own right. Lost in Translation received critical praise and went on to be nominated for four Academy Awards including: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Bill Murray), and Best Original Screenplay (which Sofia Coppola won). Sofia Coppola continues to have an illustrious career, making unique and expressive films such as Marie Antoinette, Somewhere, The Bling Ring, and The Beguiled.
Paul Thomas Anderson was just 26 years old when his first film Hard Eight premiered and gained some significant attention at the Sundance film festival. I guess his youth helps explain how in just one short year, he churned out the magnum opus Boogie Nights, which chronicled the pornographic film industry spanning over the entire decade of the 1970s. It is a massive movie filled with incredible performances from an all star cast including: Phillip Seymour Hoffman, John C. Reilly, Julianne Moore, Burt Reynolds giving what is truly a career best performance, and most famously it is the film that convinced audiences that Mark Wahlberg was a true movie star. Anderson is no slouch, and continues to make some of the biggest and most artistically relevant films of this day and age. Later films in his career included Magnolia, Punch Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood, The Master, Inherent Vice, and one of this year’s best films: Licorice Pizza!
After his 1970 feature The Landlord did moderately well, Hal Ashby’s second film Harold & Maude proved to become a well loved cult classic among audiences; so much so, that even in a long career with many well-received films, this is still considered one of his best.
While he admittedly had plenty of experience directing for the stage, Bob Fosse had only one previous film under his belt, when he directed the film that would forever change movie musicals. After a rather lackluster debut, with 1969’s film adaptation of stage show Sweet Charity, Fosse turned the tides with Cabaret, which went on to winning eight academy awards at the 1972 Oscars including Best Director, which he famously beat out Francis Ford Coppola who was nominated for The Godfather. Fosse’s filmography was incredibly short but Cabaret was as great and as big of a success anyone could hope to have with only the second film in their career.
John Carpenter is the master of genre film-making, but his stamp on the Horror genre is one that remains unparalleled to this day. Following his first major motion picture (we aren’t counting his student film Dark Star here), the crime/drama Assault on Precinct 13 is not an easy task. As far as first film’s go that movie is a hard act to follow. In fact the only way to top yourself is to absolutely change the landscape of film. Lucky for Carpenter, and for us, he did just that by making the ultimate Horror movie slasher with the original Halloween. There have been many slashers since, but none that served as such a monumental game-changer as this one.
Possibly one of the biggest and most important step ups in a directors career is Quentin Tarantino’s progression from his exciting debut hit Reservoir Dogs to the cinema classic Pulp Fiction. While Reservoir Dogs is a fun fan favorite, it seems ironically sophomoric in comparison to the much more mature, better scripted, better acted, better shot follow up of Pulp Fiction. While the style and tone of both remain undeniably Tarantino, Reservoir Dogs feels like a rough draft or practice round for the Tarantino’s legendary and beloved second feature film.
Sometimes following up a movie that is completely from a different genre can be a great way to not become pigeon-holed as one type of filmmaker. For the legendary duo of the Coen Brothers that turned out to be the perfect move for their career, when they followed up their gritty and tense crime drama Blood Simple with their zany cartoonish love story between an ex cop and ex criminal that will make you howl with laughter!
The Wachowski Sisters are absolute filmmaking game-changers! They have constantly broke down boundaries and continue to push audiences to expand their minds and think outside of the box. It is insane to look back and realize that after their tremendous, but criminally underseen neo noir Bound, the made what was only their second major studio film which turned our to be The Matrix. As far as second movies go, there is no bigger jump in impact, quality and excellence in film making than making The Matrix as your sophomore film. That statement would be true following almost any film in a directors filmography and that is truly saying something.
I will fully admit to still never having seen Tobe Hooper’s first film, Eggshells. While that film did not seem manage to much of a cultural impact, Hooper’s second film was an absolute lightning rod of a horror film and stands today as one of the most effective horror films ever put to film. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre invented an entire sub genre of horror, introducing a gritty, unpolished style that changed the landscape of horror films forever. Not too shabby for your second film.
Finishing out our list is what could be possibly one of the best second films of recent memory. With Jordan Peele’s newest horror film Nope already in theatres, its a perfect time for audiences to go back and appreciate just how great his second film Us was. After Get Out served as on of the most impressive debuts that any Horror filmmaker could have hoped for (it even nabbed Jordan Peele an Academy Award for Best Screenplay), the prospect of following it up with a second film was a daunting prospect to say the least. Us managed to ratchet up the terror and show true improvements and strides in his approach to cinematography and composition. Us was a big success at the box office and yet it is still one of the most criminally underrated Horror films of the last ten years.
A “sleeper” in movie parlance is an unheralded or dismissed film whose success confounds critics when it catches fire with audiences. Through word of mouth and a mysterious penetration of the culture, sleepers become huge commercial successes despite, in many instances, low budgets and no-name casts. Sometimes, mostly in the pre-VHS/DVD era, an underperforming movie might disappear only to resurface to acclaim after the producer or director gains control of the film and makes a deal with exhibitors to bring it back into theaters. Often the return on production is astronomical. Looking back, we see that sleepers are emblematic of independent film production and distribution, in short, the post-studio system era.
Dr. No (1962)
This first feature-length film based on the exploits of Ian Fleming’s MI6 British Agent 007, aka James Bond (Sean Connery), heralded the cinema’s longest-running movie series. Technological gimmicks that came to define the ongoing cycle were held to a minimum in this and the sequel From Russia With Love, both of which relied on fisticuffs, knives and pistols rather than futuristic cars, rocket jet-packs and lethal bowler hats. For Dr. No, critical reaction was all over the map. The Daily Express said it “was fun all the way,…” while the Vatican called it “a dangerous mixture of violence, vulgarity, sadism and sex.” Bond definitely has a hard edge here, depicted most overtly as he feigns indifference when Professor Dent (Anthony Dawson) pulls out his Smith & Wesson and fires six shots. But with blanks. Bond smirks as he returns deadly fire with his Walther. Dr. No cost $1.1 million and made $59.5 million.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
A farmhouse provides temporary safety for a disparate group of humans beset by shambling, pasty-faced and flesh-devouring “things.” Drive-ins were showing this three years after its premiere. Made on the proverbial shoestring budget, it eventually grossed $30 million. It was a watershed moment for cinematic zombies, an instant cult film for aficionados of the undead. Remakes and sequels followed. Variety was aghast: “Casts serious aspersions on the integrity and social responsibility of its Pittsburgh-based makers, distrib Walter Reade, the film industry as a whole and exhibs who book the pic.” (Variety, October 16, 1968) The literate horror film-specific fanzine Castle of Frankenstein (July 1970) looked askance: “Putrid, with indistinct, bad acting and needlessly gruesome bloodletting.” In CultMovies, Danny Peary wrote, “If ever a picture became a hit because of favorable word-of-mouth, this is it. Horror aficionados stumbled upon it in run-down theaters on New York’s Forty-Second Street or in drive-ins in the sticks, and soon spread the word that they had ‘discovered a masterpiece of the genre’.” In Medium Cool: The Movies of the 1960s, Ethan Mordden echoed Peary: “It was, in fact, seen only sporadically at first, not truly enjoyed till its cult status began to gather in the early 1970s, when it became one of the first titles to popularize the ‘midnight screening’.”
Easy Rider (1969)
Dealing cocaine to fund a cross-country road trip from California to New Orleans, two bikers (Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper) aim not only to participate in Mardi Gras but to discover the authentic America. Along the way they encounter bigoted police, a “free love” commune, and an alcoholic lawyer (Jack Nicholson). Variety said, “Script is literate and incisive and Hopper’s direction is fluid, observant and catches the pictorial poetics with feeling.” It cost $400,000 and took in $60 million. The tagline: “A man went looking for America. And couldn’t find it anywhere.” In Medium Cool,Ethan Mordden concluded, “Above all, Easy Rider was big because it became prominent. Little films didn’t, as a rule, which obscures the history of the B in its time of highest development.”
Harold and Maude (1971)
A seemingly suicidal young man (Bud Cort) finds a kindred but life-affirming friend and lover in the aging and distinctly eccentric Maude (Ruth Gordon). Cat Stevens provided the evocative score for this black comedy that foundered during its initial release but picked up steam through word of mouth. Roger Ebert gave it one-and-one-half stars, but in 2017 Chicago Tribune critic Mark Caro, responding to a poll, said, “I’m sorry, Harold and Maude, for denying you for so long. You’re my favorite movie once again.” Variety (December 16, 1971) said, “Harold andMaude has all the fun and gaiety of a burning orphanage.” Bud Cort said much later that the film made $350 million. The best analysis of this movie is probably found in Cult Movies: “Harold and Maude is a film about death and resurrection, where death and life continuously overlap.” Ruth Gordon was moved by New York Times critic Vincent Canby’s negative review to write him a letter that offered her opinion that he should have watched the film with a normal audience, not a screening room with a bunch of fellow critics.
Billy Jack (1971)
Tom Laughlin starred, directed and wrote with his wife Delores Taylor this anti-authority action film in which the title character uses martial arts skills to ameliorate the dark cloud under which the Freedom School’s students live, i.e., a corrupt county government and those who would send wild horses to the glue factory. After the American International Pictures deal fell through, 20th Century-Fox picked it up, but that partnership waned, too, and Warner Bros. released the film and it made $10 million. Laughlin then got hold of it and re-released it and the grosses exceeded $32 million. “The industry shook its collective head in disbelief,” wrote Peary in Cult Movies, adding that it was sometimes pretentious but energetic and not badly made. Variety (December 31, 1970) praised Laughlin and Taylor. There is a disturbing (and not in a good way) prequel, The Born Losers, and two sequels.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
In Cult Movies, Danny Peary called this musical comedy horror flick “the ultimate audience participation film.” The story: when their car breaks down, an engaged couple, Janet (Susan Sarandon) and Brad (Barry Bostwick) find themselves near a castle in which a Transylvanian convention is taking place. They encounter various celebrants, including the seductive bisexual mad doctor, Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry) and his creation, Rocky. The movie cost under $2 million and made over $200 million—and more, counting ongoing revivals. Variety thought the film failed to capture the spirit of the stage play. “The sparkle’s gone.”
Friday the 13th (1980)
On the heels of 1978’s Halloween came this slasher film with another seemingly unstoppable madman. It cost $550,000, made close to $60 million, and spawned a franchise. Said Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Film Sequels, Series and Remakes (Vol. I, 1997), “The filmmakers, we think, were basically intrigued by the success of Halloween (and that film’s obvious progenitors). The premise of each film bears no closer scrutiny than do the fireside horror stories that are frequently included therein….The plots…are stripped down to the bare essentials of horny teens, stupid adults, isolated boondocks and mad slasher.”
Clash of the Titans (1981)
Critical response was mostly ho-hum other than praise for Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion creatures in this movie version of the Perseus myth. Think Medusa! “Release the Kraken!” became a catch-phrase. It cost under $20 million to make but grossed in excess of $70 million.
Dirty Dancing (1987)
Dance instructor at a Catskills resort in 1963, Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze) romances the young guest Frances “Baby” Houseman (Jennifer Grey). “Nobody puts Baby in the corner” became a catch-phrase. Some major critics were unimpressed when it premiered. Variety liked the production values, “some nice dance sequences,” and Jennifer Grey’s performance, but Swayze’s character was unconvincing. Roger Ebert was “Thumbs Down,” citing an “idiot plot.” His partner Gene Siskel gave it a “marginal Thumbs Up.” By contrast, the public went gaga. A budget of $4.5 million produced a film that made $214.6 million.
The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Presented as a “found footage” documentary about the search for Maryland’s Blair Witch, the film cost no more than $500,000 and ended up making over $248,000,000. The New York Times (July 14, 1999) was impressed that the filmmakers made something out of nothing, and Rolling Stone (July 30, 1999) said it would “creep you out of your skin.”
My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002)
Nia Vardalos turned her play about a Greek- American woman (Vardalos) falling in love with an Anglo teacher (John Corbett) into a thunderous movie hit. Each family’s foibles and idiosyncracies produced many laughs. It never took the weekly #1 spot but had “legs.” Audiences would remember and cite various amusing episodes. Production costs were around $6 million and it made over $368 million.
Lost in Translation (2003)
American movie star Bob Harris (Bill Murray) arrives in Tokyo to film a Suntory whiskey commercial and stumbles on recent Yale graduate Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), whose photographer husband leaves her alone for long stretches of time. Both afflicted with ennui, Charlotte and Bob band together. Nothing much was expected of director Sofia Coppola’s little film but critics were invariably positive. It cost $4 million to make and generated $118 million.
This wild sci-fi actioner (“It’s tough not to be dazzled by this operatic action film’s blend of pop-philosophy, biology and silly delirium,” said USA Today on July 24, 2014.) with Scarlett Johansson as an unwilling drug mule who gains incredible mental powers that translate into physical prowess cost $40 million and made over $400 million in spite of the R rating—beating out the predicted weekend champ, Hercules. Curiously, violence rather than nudity or foul language, prompted that rating.
It cost $11 million and arrived with little fanfare but took in $48 million. As the title character, Carl Casper (Jon Favreau) loses his job at an upscale eatery but finds fulfillment manning a food truck and trekking across the southern tier of the country. It’s summer and his son goes along. Performers John Leguizamo, Scarlett Johansson, Dustin Hoffman, and Robert Downey, Jr. make appearances. Sofia Vergara plays Casper’s estranged wife. It’s a charming, mouth-watering tale. Critics were generally favorable. The Los AngelesTimes (May 8, 2014) congratulated Favreau’s decision to avoid “done-to-death family dynamics, forced obstacles and predictable responses for authentic interaction, organic humor and a hopeful vitality.”
The Greatest Showman (2017)
A high-concept musical about the life of P. T. Barnum starred Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams, Rebecca Ferguson and other “names.” Like My Big Fat Greek Wedding, it had “legs.” A disappointing first week was compensated for by a final gross of $434 million against production costs of $84 million. Critics were mostly positive with word of mouth at least as responsible for its success. Library DVD rentals were high.
Unless stated otherwise, film grosses are from Wikipedia.
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