All posts by Gordon Maples

Writer of the Misan[trope]y Movie Blog and the (Plot)opsy Podcast. A bad movie expert, if there ever was such a thing. Movie nerd, professional organizer, and political progressive.

Dead Birds

Dead Birds

Today, I’m going to take a look at the 2004 horror western Dead Birds.

The plot of Dead Birds is summarized on IMDb as follows:

A group of Confederate soldiers hole up in an abandoned plantation after robbing a bank and find themselves at the mercy of supernatural forces.

The screenwriter for Dead Birds was Simon Barrett, who also served as a producer on the film. He has gone on to write noted horror and thriller films like The Guest, You’re Next, Frankenfish, and Blair Witch.

The director for the film was Alex Turner, who has been behind a handful of other films, including 2009’s Red Sands and the upcoming film The Voyager.

The cast of Dead Birds includes Henry Thomas (E.T., Legends of the Fall, Gangs of New York, Suicide Kings), Patrick Fugit (Saved, Wristcutters: A Love Story, Gone Girl, Almost Famous, White Oleander), Michael Shannon (Nocturnal Animals, Pottersville, The Shape of Water, Revolutionary Road, Midnight Special, Kangaroo Jack), Mark Boone Junior (Memento, Batman Begins, 30 Days of Night, Sons of Anarchy, Vampires, The Quick & The Dead), Nicki Aycox (Perfect Stranger, Joy Ride 2, Jeepers Creepers 2), and Isaiah Washington (Exit Wounds, Hollywood Homicide, Grey’s Anatomy).

The cinematography for the film was provided by Steve Yedlin, who has been a go-to director of photography for Rian Johnson, shooting Looper, Brick, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and The Brothers Bloom, as well as other movies like San Andreas and the remake of Carrie.

The editor for Dead Birds was Brian Anton, who cut television series like Cold Justice and Sid the Science Kid, as well as a handful of independent films.

Dead Birds was filmed in and around Mobile, AL, which is also the approximate setting for the film’s story. In the handful of scenes that take place in the town of Fairhope, AL early in the film, the Dead Birds production utilized the still-standing sets from Tim Burton’s Big Fish for the backdrop, which was filmed in the area the previous year.

In February of 2010, after years of word-of-mouth circulation about the film, Dead Birds got a special theatrical screening in Los Angeles at the NuArt Theater, to the pleasure of many of the fans it gained along the way.

Currently, Dead Birds holds a 5.7/10 IMDb user rating, alongside Rotten Tomatoes scores of 50% critics and 40% audiences, which are far from ideal numbers. That said, the movie certainly has some fans.

First off, Dead Birds has an interesting premise. A cursed farm that tortures those who wander across it is an interesting enough start, but making it a Civil War period piece gives it an intriguing flair. The Western aesthetics and character types are interesting to see in a horror setting, and the entertaining cast of character actors add a lot of color to the scenario.

Unfortunately, Dead Birds has some serious issues. First off, the effects are a bit uneven: some shots are pretty cool, while others are jarring and rough around the edges (particularly the demonic facial contortions). Likewise, the story isn’t conveyed very well: outside of a choppy flashback vision sequence, there isn’t much in the way of exposition to walk the audience through the gang’s spooky predicament. Characters are also dispatched a bit too easily, and without either fanfare or gore, which should be most of the fun for a Lovecraft-inspired horror flick.

Last but not least, Dead Birds suffers from an inexplicably terrible title. I have gone back and forth in my head trying to figure out why they settled on that name, and I haven’t the slightest clue. I’m not sure how they thought that title would convey the sort of movie they had made, or how it would appeal to an audience looking for a horror-western, but it definitely doesn’t work. Honestly, with a better title, I suspect this movie would be a bigger underground success.

Overall, Dead Birds is a flawed, yet interestingly-conceived film. Even though it doesn’t much deliver on the promise of its premise, it is hard not to give it some credit for the effort. In a lot of ways, 2015’s Bone Tomahawk does what Dead Birds wanted to do: throw a colorful cast of Western characters into a horror movie scenario, and see what happens.

As far as a recommendation goes, horror fans might enjoy this as a deep cut. There are also plenty of recognizable character actors in the cast that film buffs might get a kick out of, even though none of them get much time or opportunity to do much. For most people, I think this flick would be a bit too dull. For this most part, this is a skippable movie. However, if you haven’t seen it already, Bone Tomahawk is everything this movie could have been and more.

Advertisements

Body Parts

Body Parts

Today, I’m going to take a look at a bizarre body horror film from 1991: Body Parts.

The plot of Body Parts is summarized on IMDb as follows:

After losing his arm in a car accident, a criminal psychologist has it replaced with a limb that belonged to a serial killer.

The story for Body Parts is based on a French crime fiction novel from 1965 called Et mon tout est un homme, written by the duo of Pierre Boileau and Pierre Ayraud. The pair published numerous works between the 1950s and 1990s, and have had a handful of film adaptations made from their stories. The most famous of these is certainly Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, based on D’entre les morts.

Body Parts was directed and co-written by  Eric Red, whose previous writing credits included Near Dark and The Hitcher. His co-writers for the film were Norman Snider (Casino Jack, Partners), producer Patricia Herskovic, and Joyce Taylor, who has no other recorded writing credits.

The central cast of Body Parts includes Jeff Fahey (The Lawnmower Man, Planet Terror, Machete), Lindsay Duncan (Birdman, Gifted), Kim Delaney (Army Wives, NYPD Blue, Mission to Mars), Zakes Mokae (Waterworld, Vampire in Brooklyn), and Brad Dourif (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Dune).

The editor for the film was Anthony Redman, whose other cutting credits include Street Fighter, Highlander II: The Quickening, King of New York, Red Heat, and Bad Lieutenant, among others.

The cinematographer for Body Parts was Theo Van de Sande, who has also shot a handful of high-profile films, such as Blade, Volcano, Bad Santa 2, and Grown Ups.

The score for the film was written by composer Loek Dikker, a classical and jazz pianist from the Netherlands. It is one of only a handful of films scores he’s done over his career, and one that ultimately won him a Saturn Award for best music.

The special effects and makeup effects crew for Body Parts included common elements with films such as The Shape of Water, Resurrection, Jason X, Mimic, Near Dark, Jacob’s Ladder, Total Recall, Judge Dredd, Daredevil, Congo, and Cube.

In 1967, there was an attempt to adapt the source material for Body Parts (the novel Et mon tout est un homme) to the screen by Arthur P. Jacobs (Planet of the Apes) and James Bridges, but it never came to fruition.

Body Parts was nominated for four Fangoria Chainsaw Awards: Brad Dourif for Best Supporting Actor, Lindsay Duncan for Best Supporting Actress, Loek Dikker for Best Soundtrack, and Gordon J. Smith for Best Makeup FX. Of the nomnations, only Dourif took home the prize.

According to a Los Angeles Times article from 1991, television advertisements for the movie were pulled in Wisconsin due to the discovery of Jeffrey Dahmer’s collection of numerous dismembered bodies. A Paramount spokesman is recorded as saying:

We pulled our TV ads out of sensitivity to the tragedy in Milwaukee, even though the storyline is not related at all to what happened.

Body Parts was made on a budget of $10 million, on which it managed to only bring in a total of $9.2 million. On top of that lackluster financial performances, critics and audiences were hardly enthusiastic for it. Body Parts currently holds an IMDb user rating of 5.5/10, alongside Rotten Tomatoes scores of 40% from critics and 34% from audiences.

In a piece from Reel Film Reviews, Body Parts was referred to as:

An unapologetically ludicrous horror effort that often skirts the very edges of camp without going entirely over.

Personally, I find that to be a pretty apt description of Body Parts. The movie is centered around a weird original concept that could easily cross over into being goofy, but the film keeps its bearings. and is a lot of fun as a result. Jeff Fahey and Brad Dourif are pretty much perfect in their roles, as they are both sort of eerie character actors capable of chewing scenery. Without their presence, Body Parts could easily have been a real mess.

Appropriately, Body Parts is filled with fun (mostly eponymous) practical effects. However, what really steals the show is a car chase sequence, in which the driver of one car is handcuffed to the passenger in another. To say the lease, the sequence is an absolute blast, and was probably as fun to film as it is to watch.

Overall, Body Parts is a fun, mostly-forgotten horror movie with one of the more outlandish, bizarre plots I’ve come across. If you happen to stumble upon it, I’d recommend just about anyone give it a shot. Additionally, I would be remiss not to recommend the We Hate Movies podcast episode on the film, which is what initially brought my attention to it.

 

The Darkness

The Darkness

Today, I’m going to take a look at The Darkness, an already forgotten 2016 horror movie starring Kevin Bacon.

The plot of The Darkness is summarized on IMDb as follows:

A family unknowingly awakens an ancient supernatural entity on a Grand Canyon vacation, and must fight for survival when it follows them home.

The central cast of The Darkness includes Kevin Bacon (Tremors, Apollo 13, Cop Car, R.I.P.D., Super, Hollow Man), Paul Reiser (Stranger Things, Whiplash, Aliens), Radha Mitchell (Man On Fire, Silent Hill, Pitch Black, Phone Booth), David Mazouz (Gotham), Matt Walsh (Veep, Dog Bites Man), and Jennifer Morrison (House, Warrior, Once Upon A Time).

The Darkness was directed, co-written, and produced by Greg McLean, who also directed 2016’s The Belko Experiment, 2017’s Jungle, and the Wolf Creek film series. His co-writers for the film were Shayne Armstrong (Bait, Johnny Bravo Goes To Bollywood) and Shane Krause (Bait, Monster Beach).

The cinematographer for the film was Toby Oliver, whose credits since The Darkness have included the financially successful horror films Get Out and Happy Death Day.

The Darkness employed the work of two credited editors: Sean Lahiff, who was an assistant editor on The Babadook, as well as a visual effects editor on The Hunger Games and Green Lantern, and Timothy Alverson, who cut Sinister 2, Orphan, and The Astronaut’s Wife, and also did assistant editing duties on movies like Con Air, Theodore Rex, Prince of Darkness, and Equilibrium.

The musical score for The Darkness was composed by Johnny Klimek, whose credits have included the cult favorite television show Sense8, Cloud Atlas, Kill Me Three Times, Deadwood, Perfume: Story of a Murderer, Run Lola Run, and One Hour Photo.

The Darkness shares a name with a flamboyant English rock band, who experienced a brief run of success in the early 2000s. Regrettably, neither the band, nor its iconic single “I Believe In A Thing Called Love,” appear in the film.

Financially, The Darkness turned a not-insignificant profit: on a production budget of $4 million, it took in a grand total of just shy of $11 million in its lifetime theatrical run.

However, The Darkness had a dismal critical reception, including a 3% critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes, alongside a user score of 4.4/10 on IMDb and a 20% Rotten Tomatoes audience rating. On top of many critics pointing out its use of numerous overplayed genre conventions, as well as more than a few specifically notable similarities to Poltergeist, Peter Sobczynski of RogerEbert.com wrote the following:

There are times when it feels as if the producers challenged themselves to see how little it needed and still meet the legal definition of a movie.

Personally, I agree passionately with Sobczynski’s point there: everything about The Darkness feels low effort, and the result is a dispassionate product that pushes the maximum limits of boredom. While a lack of action is certainly part of that problem, the bigger issue is that all of the actions that do occur feel scripted out: with even an basic familiarity with horror films, you could predict all of the actions well before they happen. The result is a zero stakes, dull experience.

Another notable aspect of The Darkness was a clear attempt to portray an already-troubled family life at the story’s center. While most horror movies like to present a peaceful home inflicted with an external, supernatural force, this protagonist family is a train wreck from the time they are presented to the audience. Through a combination of bafflingly-portrayed conditions like semi-magical autism, eating disorders, and alcoholism, there is a definite sense that the writers wanted this to feel like a real family with tangible problems. However, each of these normally humanizing issues wind up making all of the characters less likable and identifiable, due to how they react to their other family members’ issues. By the end of the movie, I was pulling for the dark sky gods: they seemed to take better care of the autistic child than his family.

Speaking of the band of animalistic, possibly-alien sky gods, I did appreciate that there was a nugget of an original concept here. As much as everyone is familiar with the idea of “disturbing native american burial grounds” in horror movies, the resultant haunts never usually present as particularly native, but rather as generically demonic. Unfortunately, as much as that concept is different in the details, the big picture is all too familiar. The mechanisms and story beats are all well-worn and clearly copied and pasted from the latest generic horror movie, which is a shame for a screenplay that appeared to have had interesting ambitions at one time.

On the whole, there isn’t much of anything to recommend about The Darkness: it is a forgettable movie experience, plain and simple. That said, there were some elements that got me scratching my head, mostly in regards to the portrayal of the family and their myriad crises. One reviewer even said that  it “is more interesting for its family drama than for its scares.” While I do think that is true in a relative sense, the word ‘interesting’ is a bit strong in this context. This is a movie to skip.

The Great Wall

The Great Wall

Today, I’m going to take a look at 2017’s The Great Wall, the ill-received Chinese fantasy epic starring Matt Damon.

The plot of The Great Wall is summarized on IMDb as follows:

European mercenaries searching for black powder become embroiled in the defense of the Great Wall of China against a horde of monstrous creatures.

The story of The Great Wall is credited to three individuals: Max Brooks, noted author of World War Z and The Zombie Survival Guide; Edward Zwick (Defiance, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back); and Marshall Herskovitz (The Last Samurai).

The screenplay for the movie is credited to the duo of Carlo Bernard and Doug Miro, who have worked on Narcos, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and Prince of Persia, with additional work by Tony Gilroy, whose credits include State of Play, Michael Clayton, The Devil’s Advocate, The Bourne Identity, and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

The Great Wall‘s director is Yimou Zhang, an acclaimed Chinese filmmaker whose list of credits includes Hero, Curse of the Golden Flower, and House of Flying Daggers.

The cast of The Great Wall includes Matt Damon (The Martian, Good Will Hunting, The Bourne Identity, The Departed, Dogma), Pedro Pascal (Game of Thrones, Narcos, Bloodsucking Bastards), Willem Dafoe (Platoon, The Life Aquatic, To Live and Die In LA, Spider-Man, Speed 2), Tian Jing (Kong: Skull Island), and Andy Lau (Infernal Affairs, House of Flying Daggers).

The movie interesting employed the work of two cinematographers: Stuart Dryburgh (Blackhat, The Tempest, Aeon Flux, The Piano) and Xiaoding Zhao (House of Flying Daggers, Curse of the Golden Flower, Coming Home).

Likewise, The Great Wall has two credited editors: Mary Jo Markey (Life, Super 8, Star Trek, Star Trek: Into Darkness, Star Wars: The Force Awakens) and Craig Wood (Guardians of the Galaxy, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, The Ring, The Lone Ranger).

The musical score for The Great Wall was composed by Ramin Djawadi, who is best known for his work on the HBO series Game of Thrones and WestWorld, but has also provided scores for movies like Iron Man, Pacific Rim, Blade: Trinity, and Mr. Brooks.

At the time of its production, The Great Wall was the most expensive Chinese movie in history, and many have predicted that it is a sign of things to come for the motion picture industry in the country.

The villainous creatures in the movie are referred to as the Tao Tie, which originates from a term taken from Chinese mythology. The Taotie was one of the four evil creatures of the world, along with Hundun, Taowu, and Qiongqi.

Interestingly, none of the filming for the movie was actually done on The Great Wall of China itself. Instead, the wall featured on screen is an entirely digital rendering.

Prior to Ramin Djawadi’s involvement with the film, the acclaimed film composer James Horner had agreed to do the score for The Great Wall. However, his death in 2015 came before he completed any work on the score, and Djawadi was brought on board.

There is an alternate casting rumor for the film that Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston was the initial choice for Willem Dafoe’s role, and even got as far as negotiations before things fell apart.

The Great Wall co-stars Andy Lau and Matt Damon interestingly played different, acclaimed versions of the same character in Infernal Affairs and its American remake, The Departed.

Prior to its release, The Great Wall was accused of whitewashing due to the initial casting of Matt Damon as its lead, as many assumed it would follow a white savior pattern of a white person saving a non-white population. However, once it was released, many were put at ease by the real content of the story. In The Huffington Post, Jonathan Kim wrote the following:

William doesn’t teach the Chinese how to be better Chinese — it’s William who must redeem himself by risking his life to serve the greater good, which is a popular theme in both Chinese culture and entertainment. In other words, it’s William who has to learn to be more Chinese…So on the charge of The Great Wall insulting the Chinese and promoting white superiority, I say: Not Guilty.

In its lifetime theatrical run, The Great Wall took in $334.5 million on a production budget of $150 million. At first glance, that might sound pretty decent: however, it dramatically under-performed outside of China, and didn’t reach its initial projections. Once costs beyond the production budget were accounted for, the movie lost a significant amount of money, which was divided among the four studios involved.

The critical reception wasn’t any better: currently, the film has Rotten Tomatoes scores of 35% from critics and 43% from audiences, alongside an IMDb user rating of 6.0/10. The Great Wall wound up on a number of published Worst of 2017 lists, and was widely regarded as one of the most high-profile failures of the year. It didn’t even fare well on Chinese movie review websites, to the immense displeasure of the Chinese government, who had a stake in the success of the movie as a jumping-off point for the Chinese movie industry becoming a blockbuster-producing outfit.

In his review for Flickering Myth, Robert Kojder referred to the film as “essentially a grab bag of tried-and-true narrative tropes,” as well as  “dumb and absolutely predictable,” but also noted that “the visionary chops of its director are on full display,” and that the action sequences make for a “fun slice of blockbuster cinema.”

In his review, Kojder points out both the key positives and negatives I took from The Great Wall. The design, choreography, and costuming are a visual delight, and the action occasionally conjures memories of the splendid Hero. However, whenever the action is at a lull, there isn’t any charm or novelty to the story or characters, which undercuts the fun of the experience as a whole.

That said, by far the biggest issues with the film surround the antagonist creatures, the Tao Tie. First off, their design leaves a lot to be desired: most of them look like langoliers with wrinkled, raisin-like hog bodies. While they do have large teeth, they all seem like grunts for some sort of bigger, grander foe: one that ultimately never comes. Their leader, the Queen, looks more or less just like the rest of the army, and isn’t particularly more menacing or terrifying. I expected there to be some variety among the opposing army, more like the hodgepodge armies of imaginative nonsense from 300. Instead, the heroes just fight off endless waves of wrinkly hog-raisins, which wouldn’t be all that visually interesting even if the visual effects were decently executed.

Speaking of which, the visual effects are absolutely terrible, something that most stands out in the physical combat sequences with the Tao Tie. During the first battle sequence on the wall, Matt Damon fights off a number of the prunebeasts, and the effects are so terrible that I felt my jaw hit the floor. I’m not sure if the production just cheaped out when it came to contracting out the effects work, or if they just ran out of money before the visual effects were totally finished, but the end result is a hideous CGI army that looks like something from a late-90s computer game. Unfortunately, it is hard to appreciate the positives of the film – its vivid color palette, fluid choreography, and rich costuming – when a bunch of sprites from the original Doom are wandering around the frame.

Overall, I actually enjoyed The Great Wall far more than I expected I would. However, that made my disappointment at the negatives quite a bit more palpable. I can forgive the paint by numbers story and characters in this kind of action-spectacle film, but the visual effects being a complete train-wreck isn’t acceptable for a film that relies solely on visual intrigue to entertain.

As far as a recommendation goes, I think this is a decent enough movie to happen upon on cable, particularly if you are multi-tasking, but I don’t know if it is worth seeking out deliberately. However, if the Chinese film industry does wind up taking off and flourishing in the near future, this might wind up being an influential movie in the history of international film. Unfortunately, that might not be a particularly good thing.

Spawn

Spawn

Today, I’m going to explore the dark and ill-received 1997 superhero film, Spawn.

The plot of Spawn is summarized succinctly on IMDb as follows:

An elite mercenary is killed, but comes back from Hell as a reluctant soldier of the Devil.

The character of Spawn was originally created by comic icon and entrepreneur Todd McFarlane, and first appeared in Spawn #1 in May of 1992. Spawn was (and is) the face of Image comics, an independent comic book company that is creator-owned, and prides itself on treating artists fairly: most distinctly by allowing them to retain creative copyrights. The original founders (including McFarlane) primarily defected from Marvel comics, where they felt that they didn’t get the credit or pay they deserved. The character of Spawn includes a handful of elements that trace back to McFarlane’s time working on (and creating) Marvel properties, most notably the Spider-Man antagonist/antihero, Venom.

This film adaptation of Spawn was directed by Mark A.Z. Dippé, an experienced visual effects artist who previously worked on The Abyss, Ghost, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Back To The Future Part II, and Jurassic Park. However, he did not (and still doesn’t) have much directing experience, outside of a handful of television movies and shorts that came years later.

The screenplay for the film was penned by Alan McElroy, who also wrote Halloween 4, Wrong Turn, The Marine, and Kirk Cameron’s Left Behind: The Movie, and was also involved with Todd McFarlane in the creation of the subsequent Spawn animated series.

The cast of Spawn in primarily made up of Martin Sheen (Apocalypse Now, The Departed, The West Wing, Firestarter, The Dead Zone, Wall Street, Gettysburg), John Leguizamo (Super Mario Bros., The Happening, John Wick, The Pest, Carlito’s Way), Michael Jai White (Black Dynamite, The Dark Knight), Theresa Randale (Space Jam, Bad Boys), Nicol Williamson (Excalibur, The Exorcist III), Melinda Clarke (The O.C., Nikita), and Miko Hughes (Pet Sematary, New Nightmare, Apollo 13).

The cinematographer for Spawn was Guillermo Navarro, who has also shot such films as Pan’s Labyrinth, Pacific Rim, Jackie Brown, Hellboy, Hellboy II, Spy Kids, From Dusk Till Dawn, Desperado, and Night At The Museum.

The film required the work of two primary editors: Michael Knue (House, Night of the Creeps, A Nightmare On Elm Street 4, Rocky V, The Ring 2) and Todd Busch, an assistant and visual effects editor who has worked on movies like Spider-Man: Homecoming, Lake Placid, X-Men, Beowulf, and Terminator 3.

The music for Spawn was composed by Graeme Revell, whose credits include Sin City, Pitch Black, Daredevil, Red Planet, Tank Girl, Street Fighter, From Dusk Till Dawn, Hard Target, and the remakes of Assault on Precinct 13, Walking Tall, and The Fog.

Spawn was notably the first superhero movie with a black lead, as it predated the better-received Blade by a year. However, another property was even closer on its heels: Shaq’s infamous Steel, which released in theaters just two weeks after Spawn, and to even less acclaim.

It reportedly took an entire 8 months of work, from storyboard to completion, to nail down the Clown to Violator transformation sequence. Like much of the effects work in the film, it was a hybrid of practical work and CGI imagery, though it leaned quite heavily on the CGI.

In a show of dedication to his craft, John Leguizamo actually ate the “maggots” during the sequence where Clown eats a pizza from the trash. However, this is only half-true: the on-screen maggots were, in fact, mealworms.

Spawn reportedly went through a lengthy battle in order to get its PG-13 rating from the MPAA, which required countless changes to dialogue and violent sequences to appease the notoriously fickle and conservative ratings board. However, in retrospect, the decision to pursue a PG-13 is now widely criticized, and often blamed for the film’s poor reception by fans and casual audiences alike.

Spawn’s cape, one of the character’s most distinguishing features, is shown only sparingly throughout the film. However, when it does, it is an entire digital creation, with no mixed practical elements involved. This is in contrast to the previously mentioned Clown to Violator sequence, which hybridized practical effects with digital enhancements.

While Spawn hardly met with any critical praise, it did help launch a well-regarded animated series on HBO in the years after the film’s release, which ultimately won two Emmys over its run.

In the past couple of years, much talk has been made of bringing the character of Spawn back to the big screen. Todd McFarlane in particular has taken on the task of reviving his creation, and is currently attached as both a writer and director on the project.  In 2017, it was announced that he was working with Blumhouse Productions to produce a “low-budget” vision for the character on the big screen, but time will tell what exactly that will look like.

As mentioned previously, Spawn was anything but a critical success. The movie currently holds on IMDb user rating of 5.2/10, alongside Rotten Tomatoes scores of 18% from critics and 37% from audiences. Financially, it looks like the production took in an underwhelming profit, taking in $87 million in a lifetime international theatrical release on a $40 million production budget.

Perhaps the most divisive aspect of Spawn is the performance of John Leguizamo’s Clown. While the character and portrayal is unarguably obnoxious, there is something to be said for the fact that he is certainly memorable. As much as I didn’t find much entertainment value in the character, he lit up the screen more than anything else in the movie, and is more or less the only takeaway of the film I’ve held on to since my first viewing. On top of that, I have been led to understand that it is accurate to the source material. While that shouldn’t automatically be considered a positive, I think it goes a long way to explaining why the character is played the way he is. It is also worth noting that Leguizamo was clearly 100% dedicated to the part, and is nearly unrecognizable in the role. All in all, his performance is almost as impressive as it is inexplicable: why would someone put so much effort into a role so bad? In any case, he is the highlight of the movie by a longshot, and is enough to make it or break it, depending on the person watching.

On the other end of the performance spectrum, however, is Martin Sheen. While Leguizamo chews scenery throughout the film and consistently goes above and beyond the needs for the role, Sheen appears to sleepwalk his way to a paycheck with his performance. I’m sure this was a case of a distinguished actor on tough times dealing with material he felt was beneath him, but there is something markedly dispassionate about it all the same. That is particularly a shame, because I’d be willing to bet that there are a ton of character actors who would have eaten up the chance to be a crooked, evil politician in league with the legions of Hell. Alas, an underperforming Sheen is what the world received.

Beyond the performances, the element of the film that most stuck with me were the effects. Unfortunatly, it was for all the wrong reasons. To put it succinctly: the effects just look bad. While I can certainly appreciate the attempt to blend practical work with digital work (in the vein of Jurassic Park), something clearly went wrong here. Whether it is Spawn’s cape, his motorcycle, or the transformation sequence for Clown, every major sequence that required digital work looks and feels flubbed. Perhaps this is partly a product of how much time has passed, but I feel like there are plenty of contemporaneous films with similar effects that look far better. In any case, they make the movie hard to look back on positively.

One of the problems with characters like Spawn is that they require a lot of backstory. Unlike a character like Captain America or Spider-Man, who inhabit a world more-or-less like our own, Spawn has a complicated mythos woven into his backstory that is inherent to his character. Establishing that kind of mythos for an audience via a screenplay can be a daunting task: a bit too much exposition, and audiences will feel bored; not enough, and they will feel lost.  In the case of Spawn, there was an attempt to cram as much information as possible into the opening narration, I’m sure in the hopes that it could be gotten out of the way for the rest of the film. However, that narration winds up feeling rushed, bloated, and overwhelming, to the point that the information doesn’t get digested by the audience. Hopefully, in a future attempt at adapting the story, the screenplay will reveal information a bit more organically, and use Spawn as the audience’s surrogate for revelations to unravel.

Overall, I think Spawn is hardly the worst movie ever produced, but it certainly belongs in a lower tier of superhero films. A combination of strategic production mistakes, some mediocre effects work, an unpolished screenplay, and a wide array of off-putting performances damned it in the public consciousness. While the movie has some defenders, I think its bad reputation is mostly deserved. I do think it is worth watching as a case study of method acting gone haywire with Leguizamo’s clown, though. That said, it isn’t enough for me to recommend it to people who don’t already have it secured in a place of nostalgia.

Deadly Prey

Deadly Prey

Today, I’m going to look at a true classic among bad action movies: 1987’s Deadly Prey.

The plot of Deadly Prey, according to IMDb, is as follows:

A group of sadistic mercenaries kidnap people off the streets and set them loose on the grounds of their secret camp, so the “students” at the camp can learn how to track down and kill their prey.

Deadly Prey was written and directed by David A. Prior, who made a huge number of cheap b-movies from the early 1980s up until his death in 2015. His works include Deadliest Prey, Invasion Force, Raw Nerve, Night Trap, White Fury, and Killer Workout, among countless others.

The central cast of Deadly Prey is made up of the writer/director’s brother Ted Prior (Killer Workout, Surf Nazis Must Die), Troy Donahue (Dr. Alien, Cry-Baby, Godfather Part II), and Cameron Mitchell (Hollywood Cop, Space Mutiny, The Swarm).

The cinematographer for Deadly Prey was Stephen Ashley Blake, who also shot the Frank Stallone movie Order of the Eagle, Hack-O-Lantern, numerous episodes of America’s Most Wanted, and LL Cool J’s music video for “Mama Said Knock You Out”

Due to the underground cult popularity of the film, in November of 2013, a remake/sequel was released by much of the same cast and crew as the original, titled Deadliest Prey.

Much of the attention that Deadly Prey has earned over the years has come through word of mouth, as well as spotlights on internet b-movie review shows like RedLetterMedia’s Best of the Worst and Everything Is Terrible, which have all roundly praised the film for its cheesiness.

Currently, Deadly Prey holds an IMDb user rating of 5.8/10, alongside a 58% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes. However, as with many good-bad movies, it is hard to tell how many votes were cast with sarcasm, so the scores should be taken with a grain of salt.

Deadly Prey is, through and through, the perfect example of a low-budget 1980s action movie. There are plenty of elements lifted from better-known action films like First Blood, lots of goofy action shots that make little-to-no logical sense, gratuitous, brutal violence at every turn, and a plethora of terrible one-liners delivered by sub-par actors (at lease one of them clad in only jorts).  This is a thoroughly enjoyable, utterly predictable exercise in 1980s action that gleefully follows just about every trope and pattern of the genre that you can imagine (despite the downer ending). There’s not much more to say than that: this movie is a complete blast for b-movie fans.

While awareness of Deadly Prey has been steadily growing over the years, I dare say that still not enough people know about it, or have had the pleasure of seeing it.  If you are one of the many who haven’t yet, do yourself a favor and add it onto your queue. This is a rare movie that I can easily recommend to casual viewers as well: I’m confident that most would find something to enjoy with this cheeseball.

 

Ivy On Celluloid: Dead Man On Campus

Dead Man On Campus

[CN: Suicide]

In this installment of Ivy On Celluloid, the series where I examine movies about higher education, I’m going to take a look at the tone-deaf 1998 suicide-centered comedy, Dead Man On Campus.

The plot of Dead Man On Campus is summarized on IMDb as follows:

Two college roommates go out and party, resulting in bad grades. They learn of the clause that says, “If your roommate dies, you get an A,” and decide to find someone who is on the verge, so to speak, to move in with them.

The screenplay for Dead Man On Campus is credited to Mike White (The Emoji Movie, School of Rock, Nacho Libre, Orange County) and Michael Traeger (The Amateurs).

Dead Man On Campus was directed by Alan Cohn, whose other credits include directing a handful of episodes of The Man Show, and composing the theme music for The Wayans Bros.

The cast of the movie includes Tom Everett Scott (Boiler Room, That Thing You Do), Mark-Paul Gosselaar (Saved By The Bell, NYPD Blue), Poppy Montgomery (Without A Trace, Unforgettable), Lochlyn Munro (Riverdale, White Chicks, Unforgiven), Alyson Hannigan (American Pie, How I Met Your Mother), and Jason Segel (How I Met Your Mother, The Muppets, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, I Love You, Man).

The cinematographer for the film was John Thomas, who has shot movies like Sex & The City and Sex & The City 2, as well as television series like Gossip Girl, The Big C, Conviction, Law & Order, Law & Order: Trial By Jury, and Sex & The City.

The editor for Dead Man On Campus was Debra Chiate, who also cut Movie 43, The House Bunny, Never Been Kissed, Clueless, Look Who’s Talking, and Look Who’s Talking Too, among others.

The musical score for the film was composed by Mark Mothersbaugh, whose other credits include The Lego Movie, Last Vegas, Fanboys, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, Bottle Rocket, The Royal Tenenbaums, and Sorority Boys.

Interestingly, Dead Man On Campus follows a similar plot and premise to another movie from the same year: The Curve, starring Matthew Lillard. However, that movie is a thriller: a more fitting genre for the premise than comedy.

Dead Man On Campus was made on a production budget of $14 million, and was the third theatrical release by MTV films (Orange County, Napoleon Dynamite, Jackass: The Movie). However, it brought in just over $15 million in its lifetime theatrical run, barely covering the production budget, and almost certainly failing to turn a profit. The critical reception wasn’t any better: it currently holds a 6.1/10 user rating on IMDb, along with Rotten Tomatoes scores of 15% critics and 55% audiences. The Los Angeles Times referred to the film as “disgusting in its ultimate endorsement of conning your way into academic survival,” and The AV Club noted that “it comes off as more ghoulish than anything else.”

Personally, I can’t help but side with the critics here: Dead Man On Campus is as mean-spirited as it is alarmingly unfunny.  The characters are outlandishly cruel in their disregard for human life, and the jokes are stoner-grade, lazy attempts at humor when they aren’t punching down at the mentally ill. All of that said, there are some elements of the film that interestingly relate to higher education.

First off, the school that serves as the setting for the film, Daleman College, is entirely fictitious. A couple of universities were used as filming locations to create the institution, however: University of the Pacific and the University of Southern California.

The impetus for the film’s plot is an old higher education urban legend: it claims that, if one’s roommate commits suicide, then the student is granted straight A’s for the semester to cope with the grief. I’m not sure exactly where this idea came from, but, per Snopes, “no college or university in the United States has a policy awarding a 4.0 average (or anything else) to a student whose roommate dies.” To add to that, if any policy did theoretically exist, it would almost certainly vary institution to institution.

While the urban legend may not be true, I was able to dig up a Purdue University study that corroborates the foundational assumption behind the policy: that grief impacts students’ academic performance.

College students who experience the death of a family member or friends also experience a corresponding drop in academic performance during the semester the loss takes place.

– Servaty-Seib, H. L. & Hamilton, L. A. (2006)

An example of a policy that does exist, however, is described as follows (from a Columbia University source):

While a person’s grades will not automatically be changed, most colleges and universities provide some type of emotional and academic support to roommates, including extensions on due dates, make-up exams, and time off without penalty.

On the same note, I also managed to dig up a blog post from The New York Times blog The Choice, which collected a series of comments from former students who dealt with the death of a parent while in college. While this is a different scenario than the one in this movie, these accounts are far more reflective of how your typical university deals with student grief. Here is abridged version of one of the comments:

I will never forget the kindness and consideration that Mount Holyoke College showed me. From getting me on the plane to keeping in touch with me while I was home sitting shivah, they could not have been more compassionate…Each of my faculty members hand-wrote a note of condolence to my mother and me, expressing sympathy and telling me to take as long as I needed in coming back and picking up the responsibilities of my studies…I was able to return promptly and finish the semester with high grades and renewed respect for my college. Forty years later, I still remember.

All of this taken into account, this is an urban legend that is strangely persistent. The Chronicle of Higher Education has referred to it as “one of the most persistent and morbid rumors on college campuses.” I’ve read accounts of it showing up as a matter-of-fact in television shows like Law & Order: Criminal Intent and CSI: NY. It is honestly alarming how pervasive this potentially harmful misconception is, to the point that it is just assumed to be true by many.

Getting off of the grim topic of suicide for a moment, I want to address one of the other major focal points of the film: the character Cooper’s most prized possession, a six foot tall bong. Now, I am not what you would describe as a marijuana enthusiast, so I wasn’t sure if this was simply a gag prop, or a practical smoking utensil. As it turns out, if you have about $60, the website smokea.com can hook you up with a six foot bong: the Headway Big Boy.  Per the description, “Headway Acrylics has been a leading manufacturer of high quality acrylic water pipes for nearly 20 years” which places its founding roughly around the time of filming for Dead Man On Campus. I suppose that means that the bong prop in the film is plausibly one of their creations?

During an early sequence in Dead Man On Campus, a professor is shown gleefully assigning one of his classes a textbook that he wrote himself. This is, in truth, a very common practice throughout many disciplines. Slate.com featured an article that said the following of professors who assign their own texts:

If your professor requires you to buy his or her own books as course textbooks at full sticker price, get out now…Heed this simple warning, and you are almost certain to avoid your institution’s most pompous, self-serving twits…assigning one’s own work is an eye-roll-inducing ego stroke.

In response to this popular perception of unethical behavior, in 2004, the American Association of University Professors released a statement which generally defended the practice. However, in that same statement, the AAUP cited a handful of standing school policies intended to curb the practice, which is an interesting read:

At Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, materials written by faculty members and intended for purchase by students may not be assigned unless their use is first approved by the appropriate departmental, collegiate, and university-level committees. Faculty members at the University of Minnesota cannot “personally profit from the assignment of materials” to students without authorization of the department chair. At Southern Utah University, a department chair and dean must approve the assignment of faculty-authored materials. Approval by a faculty committee is required at Cleveland State University. Faculty at North Dakota State University and the University of North Texas can assign their own works but are cautioned against retaining profits earned from sales to their students unless, as the North Dakota policy states, “the text has become independently accepted in the field.”

There is a thoughtful post on the ethics of professors selling their own textbooks on PsychologyToday.com which I found to be more than worth the read as well, which comes to a similar conclusion as the AAUP:

I’ve encountered lots of people—students, friends, colleagues, and publishing professionals—who think it’s automatically a conflict of interest for professors to assign their own books. But is it an unethical conflict of interest?…No. Not under most circumstances. Assigning one’s own textbook…is, on the face of it, ethical.

In Dead Man On Campus, the character Josh is shown taking a unique degree program: a six-year combined undergraduate degree and Doctorate of Medicine. I was able to dig up a list from November of 2017 of combined BA/BS/MD programs, of which the following schools reportedly offer a six-year program that high school seniors can apply directly to:

University of Texas Southwestern
Northeast Ohio Medical University
University of Missouri-Kansas City
Sidney Kimmel Medical College
Howard University
California Northstate University

Getting back to the light and cheery topic of higher education and suicide, Dead Man On Campus‘s lead character of Josh is shown as being held to impossibly high standards by his parents. To paraphrase his mother: “you always exceed my expectations. And I expect straight A’s!” In 2015, The New York Times ran an article titled “Suicide on Campus and the Pressure of Perfection”, the introduction of which reads almost exactly like Josh’s first act in Dead Man On Campus:

Kathryn DeWitt conquered high school like a gold-medal decathlete. She ran track, represented her school at a statewide girls’ leadership program and took eight Advanced Placement tests, including one for which she independently prepared, forgoing the class.

Expectations were high. Every day at 5 p.m. test scores and updated grades were posted online. Her mother would be the first to comment should her grade go down…In her first two weeks on the University of Pennsylvania campus, she hustled…surrounded by people with seemingly greater drive and ability, she had her first taste of self-doubt…Classmates seemed to have it all together.

The article lays some of the blame for perfectionism on college students’ parents, quoting that “children deserve to be strengthened, not strangled, by the fierceness of a parent’s love.” In the context of Dead Man On Campus, it is an interesting note: by the end of the film, Josh is apparently on the verge of suicide due to his failing to meet the academic expectations of his parents, peers, and professors.

At one point early in the film, it is stated that suicides are a common occurrence on the local college campus, to the point that it is just assumed that at least a few students will kill themselves by the time the semester’s final exams roll around. Unfortunately, suicides are, in fact, tragically common at college campuses. The aforementioned New York Times article notes a preceding academic year that saw 4 suicides at Tulane University, 3 at Appalachian State University, and 6 at the University of Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania State University’s Center for Collegiate Mental Health has reported that 25.5% of college students had “purposely injured themselves,” and that 9.3% of college students had made a suicide attempt in the 2015-2016 school year.

In the story of Dead Man On Campus, Daleman College has launched a campus suicide hotline to help deal with the outbreak of suicides on the campus. While I didn’t find any examples of an identical program in use on a college campus, many colleges are making innovative strides in dealing with the tragedy of student suicides. Ohio State University offers training courses to faculty and students on how to spot warning signs, and how to intervene or approach at-risk students. Vanderbilt University offers a joint program  through its Psychological Counseling Center and Center For Student Wellbeing aimed at suicide prevention and mental health awareness on campus. Cornell University launched a video project, where school leaders spoke of their own struggles with mental health, which were shared with students during orientation.

Once again, there are plenty more higher education topics worth discussing in Dead Man On Campus: homophobia, Greek organization party culture, and the popularity of recreational use of prescription drugs by college students, to name a few. However, there are plenty of other higher education movies out there for me to cover those topics in: just stay tuned.

Overall, I consider it a tasteless travesty that Dead Man On Campus ever made it to the screen, and I believe it belongs (at best) in the realm of obscurity where it currently resides. It certainly isn’t worth seeking out: black comedy fans and college stoner comedy fans can both equally easily find better than this without having to dig so far down.

For this entry, given the topics covered, I wanted to conclude with some resources for anyone who feels that they need them.

Suicide Prevention Resource Center

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

National Institute of Mental Health | Suicide Prevention