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The Stepfather II

The Stepfather II

Today, I’m going to look at the 1989 horror sequel, The Stepfather II.

The plot of The Stepfather II is summarized on IMDb as follows:

After escaping the insane asylum in which he was incarcerated, the Stepfather impersonates a marriage counselor and manages to win over a patient and her young son.

The screenplay for The Stepfather II was written by John Auerbach, and it is to-date his only recorded film writing credit. Character credits were given to the writing team from the original The Stepfather, though they had no direct involvement in this sequel.

The Stepfather II was directed by Jeff Burr, who also directed the horror films Night of the Scarecrow, Pumpkinhead II, Puppet Master 4, Puppet Master 5, and Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3.

The cast for the film included Terry O’Quinn (Lost, Young Guns, The Rocketeer, The Stepfather, Blind Fury, SpaceCamp, Castle Rock, Silver Bullet), Meg Foster (They Live, Masters of the Universe, Blind Fury, Leviathan, Best of the Best II), Caroline Williams (Days of Thunder, Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2), and Jonathan Brandis (Ladybugs, Sidekicks).

The editor on The Stepfather II was Pasquale Buba, whose list of cutting credits includes classic films like Heat, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, and Creepshow.

The special makeup effects used in the film were provided by Michèle Burke, a two-time Academy Award winner whose credits include The Cell, Minority Report, Tropic Thunder, Terror Train, and Vanilla Sky.

The Stepfather II is, of course, a sequel to The Stepfather, which released two years prior in 1987. While The Stepfather II was not well-received, the franchise continued with The Stepfather III in 1992, and a reboot of the original film in 2009.

On its initial theatrical release, The Stepfather II was marketed with the subtitle “Make Room For Daddy,” which was apparently dropped for subsequent releases.

Reportedly, Harvey and Bob Weinstein, noted human refuse and then-heads of The Stepfather II production company Millimeter Films, ordered re-shoots to add in more gore and blood into the film, which director Jeff Burr refused to do. As a result, the Weinsteins brought in a new director to do the re-shoots, and edited the film to integrate them into the movie. In an interview with Icons of Fright, Burr recounted the Weinsteins’ reaction to his initial cut of the movie:

{The Weinsteins] were just livid, because they were expecting something with mucho blood! They were expecting a totally different movie. I remember they were out in the lobby [after the test screening] like these 2 big school yard bullies saying “What the fuck? Where’s the blood?”

The Stepfather II was initially made to be a direct-to-video feature, but the producers decided to give it a limited theatrical release in November of 1989, over which it managed to gross roughly $1.5 million. Critically, however, the film didn’t meet with much rejoicing – it currently holds Rotten Tomatoes scores of 0% from critics and 34% from audiences, alongside an IMDb user rating of 5.6/10.

In his review of the film for The Washington Post, Richard Harrington said the following:

His original performance [in The Stepfather] elicited Oscar-raves, but O’Quinn was working with a great script, a good director and a limited but well-designed budget. He has none of those advantages here…O’Quinn’s fits of rage…carry none of the fury or explosive tension this time around.

As Harrington mentions, one of the key differences between The Stepfather II and its predecessor is that the ominous atmosphere and tension from the original’s screenplay is almost entirely absent. While O’Quinn still puts in a raging, memorable performance, without the support of good writing and directing, the eponymous stepfather comes off as more theatrically comical than menacing – think more Corbin Bernsen in The Dentist than Anthony Perkins in Psycho.

That is really a shame, too, because I think there was some real potential here for a good sequel – some ideas that weren’t addressed in the original are touched upon, like the sexual values of the hyper-traditional Stepfather, and his inexplicable charm failing to woo everyone he meets. I also kind of like the detail that he is undone by his old-timey “Camptown Races” whistling habit (as an unexpected and bizarre nod to M) – something that was only a minor detail in the first film, but elevated to crucial importance here.

All in all, the biggest issue with The Stepfather II is that the screenplay needed more work – the tension between characters doesn’t get to sit for nearly long enough, so the wire never feels taut. The film also might have benefited from less humor, though I appreciated the entertainment value that added in the grand scheme of things.

Overall, though, I think this is kind of a fun, goofy, bad movie sequel. It might not have you rolling with laughter, but this is solid late-80s cheese if you have a craving for that.

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Ivy On Celluloid: Senseless

Senseless

In today’s Ivy on Celluloid, I’m going to take a look at yet another higher education comedy: 1998’s Senseless.

The plot of Senseless is summarized on IMDb as follows:

A student gets his senses enhanced by an experimental drug. But abuse is not an option.

The screenplay for Senseless was credited to two writers, Greg Erb (The Princess and The Frog, RocketMan) and Craig Mazin (Scary Movie 3, Scary Movie 4, The Hangover 2, The Hangover 3). The film’s director, Penelope Spheeris, is best known for her string of high-profile comedy films in the early 1990s like Wayne’s World, Black Sheep, The Beverly Hillbillies, and The Little Rascals.

The cast of Senseless includes the likes of Marlon Wayans (White Chicks, Littleman, Scary Movie, The Ladykillers, Dungeons & Dragons), Matthew Lillard (Scream, Hackers, SLC Punk, Scooby-Doo), David Spade (Black Sheep, Joe Dirt), Brad Dourif (One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Child’s Play, Body Parts, Spontaneous Combustion), Tamara Taylor (Bones, Altered Carbon), Jeff Garlin (The Goldbergs, Curb Your Enthusiasm), and Rip Torn (Men In Black, Dodgeball).

Senseless was pretty far from a major hit – it failed to make back its production budget in its theatrical release, and the critics’ reviews were brutal (6% on Rotten Tomatoes), and audiences were, at best, mixed (6/10 on IMDb, 45% on Rotten Tomatoes). That reception was well justified, though – this is a crass cartoon of a comedy movie, with very little depth or relatability. Outside of farts, pee, physical comedy, homophobia, and sexist objectification, there isn’t a whole lot else to be found in Senseless. However, the film does provide an interesting lens through which to view issues surrounding higher education.

To begin with, three real campuses served as filming locations for the movie – the University of Southern California, UCLA, and the Stevens Institute of Technology, located in Hoboken, NJ. The setting for the film, however, is the fictitious institution of Stratford University, which is said to be located in New York City.

From what I can tell, Stratford University is supposed to be an elite academic institution, given some of the context throughout the movie (like the prestige of the junior analyst position). The two best real-life institutional fits for these details, based on the New York City location, are New York University and Columbia University, though it is hard to nail down which of the two institutions is the better analog. Interestingly, though, Stratford’s branding and colors are more akin to another institution with a similar name – Stanford University – due to the script “S” and red/white/black athletic uniform color palette. In fact, looking at Stanford’s Identity Toolkit side-by-side with the Stratford logo, it is pretty evident that they are almost exactly the same logo, with Stanford’s iconic tree removed.

At the center of the plot of Senseless is an elitist (and possibly racist) fraternity called Kappa Zeta, or “Kappa House.” In reality, there is a prominent sorority, Kappa Kappa Gamma, that uses the nickname “Kappas,” and a small sorority in California called Kappa Zeta Phi. However, there are no fraternities that I could find that go by the name Kappa Zeta. However, much of the fraternity’s activities in the film, like hazing via paddling, racist pledge decisions, and donors/alumni dictating chapter activity, all have basis in reality.

The two [black] students…apparently participated in the formal rush week festivities at the school and boasted impeccable academic and social credentials. Nevertheless, they didn’t receive any bids from the 16 white sororities on campus.

The problem, to hear sorority girls tell it, is that alumnae are either using their voting powers to veto racial integration or threatening to withhold donations and other assistance.

The Daily Caller

Part of the plot of Senseless involves the black main character, Darryl, becoming an accomplished hockey player for the university. Ice hockey is a notoriously non-diverse sport (in part due to the high costs involved), and at no level is that more evident than in collegiate competition. Jordan Greenway, a black hockey player for Boston University, recently made headlines for being named to the United States Olympic Men’s Hockey Team – the first black player to have ever received the honor. According to ThinkProgress, “less than one percent of male college hockey players are African-American, and only two percent of NHL players are black.” For comparison, a 1997 article in The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education titled “The Only Blacks in College Hockey are the Pucks,” stated that:

More than 62 percent of all male players on basketball scholarships are black. More than 52 percent of all college football players are black. African Americans also make up nearly 30 percent of all college track athletes…But college ice hockey is another story. During the 1996-1997 college hockey season, there were only seven blacks among the 3,554 athletes playing college hockey in the United States. Specifically, blacks
made up less than two tenths of 1 percent of all college
hockey players.

The primary motivation throughout the film is for Darryl to win a tight competition for a prized employment position after graduation with a New York brokerage firm called Smythe-Bates. The stated requirements to qualify for the position include, specifically, a record of athletic achievement, high GPA, and ties of tradition through a fraternal organization. This set of requirements is what sends him on his quest for simultaneous hockey glory and admission to the Kappa Zeta fraternity, all while keeping his grades in order. This is reflective of a process that has gotten increasingly common over the years – bolstering a resume through taking on multiple extracurriculars, specifically for the purpose of making one more desirable/employable. You don’t have to search for online to find countless articles on the best kinds of activities to pursue to make your college application or resume look more impressive

Part of what makes Darryl’s challenge to win the position even harder is that, compared to his competition, he is under significantly greater economic strain. Early in the film, it is revealed that Darryl is behind on rent payments despite working 4 jobs, excessively donating both blood and semen for money, and signing up for experimental medical trials to pay for his schooling. It is also shown that he comes from a low-income single-parent household, and is likely a first-generation college student.

All of these challenges are very real. College today is immensely expensive, especially for students who can’t rely on financial support from family, which covers 22% of tuition for the average college student. A 2017 article from Texas State University’s The University Star noted predatory practices by plasma banks that took advantage of poor college students, at the expense of their health. The challenges faced by first-generation college students, when compared with their continuing-generation peers, are well documented – a study found that 20 percent of first-generation college students obtained a four-year degree 10 years after their sophomore year of high school, compared to 42 percent of continuing-generation students. In regards to medical trials, college students are no strangers to sacrificing themselves for cash:

The best-paying studies…they also undergo invasive procedures, like a bronchoscopy or a biopsy, or something else unpleasant, such as being deprived of sleep, wearing a rectal probe, or having allergens sprayed in their faces. Because such studies require a fair amount of time in a research unit, the subjects are usually people who need money and have a lot of time to spare: the unemployed, college students, contract workers, ex-cons…

The New Yorker, “Guinea-Pigging”

Speaking of “unpleasant” medical trials, this is where the plot of Senseless really kicks in. After Darryl volunteers for a paid medical trial of a drug aimed at providing “heightened human perception” and “super senses,”  he uses the effects of the drug to get ahead of his peers both academically and athletically. I brought this topic up in my post on How High some time ago, and cited a 2011 article by the University of Pennsylvania’s Dr. Ross Aikins called “Academic Performance Enhancement,” about the use of stimulants by college students to improve their academic performance.

Now that the topic has come up again, I decided to give Dr. Aikins a call, to get a better idea of the realities behind the use of drugs as academic performance enhancers. I had a wonderful conversation with him, and thank him greatly for his insights here.

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To begin with, how real is the issue of using drugs to enhance academic performance? What are the drugs people are using to this end?

In college settings, there is functional, academic use of drugs. There is a history of surgeons and concert musicians who use beta blockers and anti-anxiety drugs to perform better. In war and combat, military forces use prescription stimulants and amphetamines. For college students right now, they tend to use Ritalin and Aderall…Generally, other drugs are used as purely recreational.

According to what I’ve read, stimulant use for academic purposes is far more common among white males from higher socioeconomic backgrounds. What can you tell me about that?

I have an upcoming article called ‘The White Version of Cheating,’ that looks at the academic use of drugs as an equity issue. They are a thing of privilege and access…you see men more than women in college using these drugs, and more often upper-class white families with access to these drugs. Ultimately, there is a risk factor with fraternities, as they have a culture of resourcefulness in circulating resources to perpetuate advantages, and also get easy access to drugs.

Are Ritalin and Adderall actually “smart drugs” – are people smarter when using them?

There is no evidence that these drugs actually help students academically. It can plausibly provide cognitive benefits on some kinds of tests…they mostly promote wakefulness and provide a feeling of improved performance, without proven gains to GPA.

Is using drugs for academic enhancement actually “cheating”? Is it specifically against the rules pf academic conduct at universities (outside of often being illegal activity)?

Very few colleges classify use of drugs to enhance academic performance as ‘cheating’…we sampled almost 200 university policies and handbooks, and only one included this as a matter for the academic code of conduct. Most schools don’t see it as an academic policy issue. On that one campus that did, it was a response to student demand to include it.

How widespread is this problem, exactly?

According to a number of sources, 8-9% of college students are illicitly using these kinds of stimulant drugs, but that doesn’t take into account technically licit use – when students have a prescription, but don’t use the drug as intended, or didn’t get the legitimate prescription in good faith.

In Senseless, the drug at the center of the plot is specifically engineered to “enhance senses.” Do you know of any drugs specifically made for academic enhancement?

There are not any drugs that I know that have been designed specifically to enhance academic performance…nothing like Limitless is actually out there…at least, I don’t think students are doing this in makeshift labs. There is some evidence that some people are using direct-current brain stimulation as cognitive enhancement, though. You can find information about this online, but it sounds to me to be very risky…people are essentially shocking and hacking their bodies. There are trials for Alzheimer’s medications that aim to improve focus and concentration without some of the negative side affects of current drugs, but those haven’t hit the market. Nothing like what you see in movies or books, though…mostly Ritalin and Adderall is what you see out there on campuses.

Is there anything else people should know about this practice?

This use of these drugs could be creating addicts…students often attribute their successes to the drugs, which is scary. If their career is challenging, will they use drugs as an adult as they did in school? There are concerns about long-term effects of these users later in life as well, due to a lack of longitudinal studies. What will happen to these people (both licit and illicit users), after flooding the brain with chemicals (dopamine, norepinephrine) as a result of using these drugs for so long? Some neuroscientists theorize that they ‘dim the bulb,’ and that early-onset dementia could be possible. We just don’t know yet.

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Based on what Dr. Aikins told me, I’m surprised that Senseless ended the way that it did. Ultimately, Darryl confesses that his successes were due to his use of an experimental drug, and he is disqualified from the competition for his prized position. According to Dr. Aikins, however, the odds are good that Darryl didn’t violate any of the school’s academic integrity policies, and because he obtained the drugs legally, I don’t think he violated any policies at all.

Lastly, I wanted to mention something that is played for a joke in the film – heroin addiction among college students. For most of the film, Darryl’s roommate things that he is addicted to heroin, because he catches him injecting drugs. In reality, as opioid use is rising across the United States, campuses are following suit. In 2014, there was a high-profile death of a University of Rochester student by heroin overdose, much like a death at the University of Delaware in 2018, and a 2013 death at the University of Massachusetts – Amherst. 

On the whole, Senseless is another crass, sexist, mostly unfunny mess of a movie. However, this is also one of the more interesting films I’ve analyzed for its portrayal of higher education and higher education issues, for what little that might be worth. It is still not a movie I would generally recommend, other than to dedicated higher education nerds.

The Book of Henry

The Book of Henry

Today I’m going to flip through the pages of 2017’s The Book of Henry, directed by Colin Trevorrow.

The plot of The Book of Henry is summarized on IMDb as follows:

With instructions from her genius son’s carefully crafted notebook, a single mother sets out to rescue a young girl from the hands of her abusive stepfather.

The Book of Henry was directed by Colin Trevorrow, whose other directorial credits include Jurassic World, Safety Not Guaranteed, and the upcoming Jurassic World 3. The film’s screenplay was written by Gregg Hurwitz, whose only other prominent credit is writing for the  television series V.

The cast of the film includes Naomi Watts (King Kong, Mulholland Drive, Birdman, Tank Girl), Jaeden Lieberher (St. Vincent, IT, Midnight Special), Jacob Tremblay (Room, The Predator), Sarah Silverman (School of Rock, The Sarah Silverman Program), Dean Norris (Breaking Bad, Total Recall, Under the Dome), and Lee Pace (Guardians of the Galaxy, Halt and Catch Fire, The Fall).

The cinematographer for the film was John Schwartzman, who has shot such movies as Pearl Harbor, Seabiscuit, Armageddon, The Amazing Spider-Man, and The Rock.

The editing for The Book of Henry was done by Kevin Stitt, who has cut quite a few major features over the years, including Paycheck, Cloverfield, X-Men, Elektra, Lethal Weapon 4, and Jurassic World.

The music for The Book of Henry was composed by Michael Giacchino, who also provided scores for Inside Out, Coco, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Jupiter Ascending, among others.

Apparently, the screenplay for The Book of Henry was originally written as a black comedy in the late 1990s, but Colin Trevorrow had it altered significantly to make it less comedic and more dramatic to fit with his vision for the story.

The initial poor word of mouth surrounding the release of The Book of Henry has been considered as one of the primary reasons Colin Trevorrow was released as director of Star Wars IX, as many had already questioned his competency to handle the task prior to the flop of Henry.

Currently, The Book of Henry holds a 6.6/10 IMDb user rating, alongside, Rotten Tomatoes scores of 20% from critics and 63% from audiences, making for a fairly mixed reception. Financially, however, the film was an unambiguous failure, taking in a lifetime theatrical gross of $4.5 million on a production budget of $10 million.

In his review of the film for The San Diego Reader, Matthew Lickona refers to The Book of Henry as:

a…sort of Rube Goldberg machine: one that seeks to draw out simple human emotions through precisely engineered (but still ridiculous) mechanics…However hard the talented cast may try, those aren’t people up on the screen; they’re candles, balloons, and marbles.

This is one of the most adept criticisms of the film I have come across – the characters really don’t feel tangible, as if they are just cogs and mechanisms engineered to fill a specific role. Outside of a few brief moments where Naomi Watts gets room to genuinely play the role of a grieving mother, the performances all seem rigidly trapped in defined molds, as to perform their function and nothing more. I don’t think it is at all fair to level this criticism at the actors – they clearly are doing what they can – but the writing and directing that they are beholden to makes their work effectively impossible.

Another film critic, C. L. Reed, noted in his review of the film that “there is nothing wrong with The Book of Henry that a good script could not fix.” I would go a step further than that – the problem here wasn’t just the script, but Trevorrow’s adherence to it as the director. His vision took precedence over the original screenplay – which he twisted and contorted it to fit within the boundaries he desired. Once it suited him, it clearly became fixed in his mind – since he tinkered with the script to his personal specifications, the odds that he would take input from others on it is very slim, ever if their criticisms were valid. I would wager that issues with his version of the screenplay were brought to his attention from multiple sources, but that he couldn’t and wouldn’t address them.

In his review for Paste, Andy Crump referred to The Book of Henry as having an “exact imbalance of bonkers incongruity” and called it an “inexplicable hodgepodge.” I think this gets at one of the core issues of the film – its tone. This is the other consequence of Trevorrow’s manipulation of the screenplay, and subsequent direction of the film. He took a film of one genre, and forced it to become another. What results is a screenplay that is still rife with vestigial fragments of the dark comedy it once was, but with a hard dramatic veneer. It is coarse where it should be smooth, and jagged where it should be round – it is just obviously the wrong damn shape from what it was and should be. Unlike a hybrid, genre-bending movie like Hot Fuzz or The Cabin In The Woods, the multiple genres aren’t synthesized or merged in an effective manner – they are ad-hoc pieced together by twine, Elmer’s glue, and wishful thinking. It is a bad look stylistically, like having your sleek, modern dining room decorated with a rusty, dilapidated Volkswagen.

All of that said, there is definitely some weird potential in The Book of Henry, and I would have been interested to see the off-kilter dark comedy it was written to be. The cast really do their best, and Watts gets some good emotional moments here and there. It is a shame that the movie doesn’t stylistically lean in to the bizarre hyper-reality created by the characters as they are written. Instead, this is a flat, unremarkable vision and execution layered on top of something that is, at its core, fundamentally twisted and perverse.

I’m not sure if The Book of Henry is a recommendable movie or not – it sounds more interesting and intriguing on paper and in summary than it actually is. If you only watched Dan Olsen’s reviews of the film, you would both get the gist of the film, and not have to deal with the arduously dull and faux-cutesy process of having to actually watch the damn thing. However, this is one of the more bizarre flops of recent years, and is probably worth checking out for bad movie aficionados for that fact alone.

Threads

Threads

If you haven’t heard of the 1984 film Threads, you are certainly not alone. There aren’t many BBC made-for-television movies that are talked about at all 35 years after their airing, let alone have wide name recognition after all of that time. I wasn’t made aware of this movie until I was in college, and it was part of a class I took on The Cold War. I remember it being covered along with The Day After, as examples of Cold War nuclear fears manifested on film. As you can imagine, it is a pretty bleak affair, as summed up in its IMDb synopsis:

The effects of a nuclear holocaust on the working class city of Sheffield, England and the eventual long-term effects of nuclear war on civilization.

Recently, Nashville’s Belcourt Theatre held a one-night theatrical screening of this nightmarish speculative vision of the aftermath and carnage of nuclear war – something that is a rarity for television movies. This is was my first time watching the film in its entirety – my class only included clips as I recall.

To begin with, this is an emotionally potent piece, even today – I can only imagine what it was like to watch contemporaneously. Screenwriter Barry Hines put some real effort into creating a wide cast of tangible and grounded characters – some likable, some not – before literally obliterating them in fire, ash, and languishing torment. While the early segments felt unnecessarily lengthy and banal when I was watching them, I didn’t realize how much I was connecting with the dull and realistic humanity of the characters until they began vaporizing.

The film’s director, Mick Jackson, did a handful of theatrical movies following Threads, including Volcano and The Bodyguard, but this is almost certainly his most lasting work. While it isn’t necessarily remarkably shot or edited, it is immensely affecting as a complete package. The combination of Hines’s writing, shocking makeup effects work, and a handful of key performances is a gut-punch of a cautionary tale.

That said, I’m not sure if I can recommend it. It has some pretty serious pacing issues due to its unconventional structure, inconsistent and often unnecessary narration, and is nowhere near the realm of entertainment. For people interested in Cold War history, I think it is a great watch, and it can be a great call to action towards denuclearization, but it is also definitely a product of its era. This isn’t going to have the impact on someone today as it had in 1984 – there’s too much distance between the viewer and the threat now. This was designed very particularly for a contemporaneous audience, and I think that is something that definitely comes through today.  Personally, I am glad I watched Threads, despite its flaws. However, I don’t think I’ll ever watch it again, either.

Spontaneous Combustion

Spontaneous Combustion

Today, I’m going to take a look at Tobe Hooper’s bizarre 1990 film, Spontaneous Combustion.

The plot of Spontaneous Combustion is summarized on IMDb as follows:

A young man finds out that his parents had been used in an atomic-weapons experiment shortly before he was born, and that the results have had some unexpected effects on him.

Spontaneous Combustion was co-written and directed by Tobe Hooper, who was responsible for classics of the horror genre like Poultergeist and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. However, he is also known for some of his later, cheesier works, like The Mangler, Lifeforce, Invaders From Mars, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, a couple of which I have previously covered here on the blog.

The cast of Spontaneous Combustion includes Brad Dourif (One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Mississippi Burning, Deadwood, Child’s Play, Senseless, Dune, Body Parts), Cynthia Bain (Pumpkinhead), Jon Cypher (Masters of the Universe), William Prince (Spies Like Us, The Stepford Wives, Network), Melinda Dillon (Harry and The Hendersons, Magnolia, Close Encounters of the Third Kind), and Dick Warlock (Pumpkinhead, The Abyss, Halloween II).

The cinematographer for the film was Levie Isaacks, whose other credits include The Guyver, Tooth Fairy 2, The Dentist, Leprechaun, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation, Children of the Corn II, and numerous episodes of shows like Tales From The Crypt, Dawson’s Creek, CSI:NY, and Malcolm In The Middle.

The editor for Spontaneous Combustion was David Kern, also who cut Maniac Cop, Maniac Cop 2, Maniac Cop 3, It’s Alive III, and Class of 1999 II, served as an additional editor on Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Monster Trucks, Kong: Skull Island, and Captain America: Civil War, and was a sound editor on Purple Rain, Hook, and Rush Hour.

The musical score for the film was composed by Graeme Revell, a prolific film scorer whose credits include The Crow, Daredevil, Sin City, Pitch Black, Freddy vs. Jason, From Dusk Till Dawn, Suicide Kings, Street Fighter, Tank Girl, Hard Target, and The Craft, among many others.

The team of effects workers on Spontaneous Combustion included William Tony Hooper (Demon Knight, Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2), Stephen David Brooks (The Mangler, Spaceballs, Lifeforce), Michael R. Jones (Ghostbusters, The Return of Swamp Thing, I Come In Peace), and John Dykstra (Star Wars, Spider-Man, Lifeforce, Batman & Robin).

The inspiration for Spontaneous Combustion is the phenomena of spontaneous human combustion (SHC). This is a term to describe cases where a human body combusts without an apparent external source of ignition. In contrast to the claims of the film, reported cases of SHC are very uncommon, to the point that there is significant doubt that the phenomena exists at all.

Brad Dourif’s character in the film is shown to have the power of pyrokinesis, which is defined as the ability to create and control fire with the mind. In reality, this alleged psychic ability has never been proven to exist, but it comes up relatively frequently in fictitious works, such as comics like The Fantastic Four and The X-Men, cartoons like Avatar: The Last Airbender, video games like Street Fighter, and books/movies like Firestarter.

Critically, Spontaneous Combustion mostly went under the radar. What reviews do exist, however, aren’t particularly positive. The film has an IMDb user rating of 4.6/10, and a Rotten Tomatoes audience score of 18%. A Spin magazine review of the movie referred to it as “incoherent,” claimed that it “moves too fast for logic,” pointed out the “too many subplots” and “icky, ridiculous effects,” but nevertheless concluded that the end product is still “a lot of fun” despite the movie’s low quality, likening it to Troma films.

I certainly can’t argue that there aren’t problems with Spontaneous Combustion. However, there are quite a few things I liked about this weird little movie. Chief among these positives is the performance of Brad Dourif – he is a pretty fantastic character actor to start with, but this is just perfect casting. The guy always seems at least low-key pissed off, with a dash of biting wit on top, and that mixture works perfectly for this fiery character. Dourif pretty much carries the movie on his own, and to his credit, he is able to do it.

Another huge positive to this film is its concept – this is just a damn cool idea, and something that doesn’t hit the screen very often. Pyrokinesis is pretty cinematic, and allows for some cool effects work. More importantly, though, the intersection of theme and character here is fascinating. As opposed to scientists who are undone by their own inventions, like a Dr. Jekyll or a Dr. Brundle, Dourif’s character here is a victim of someone else’s madness. He’s not burdened by a karmic system for his misdeeds or hubris – he’s unjustly cursed from birth. While he does give in to a clear anger problem, he is forced into this emotional (and physical) combustion by external sources – like the constant deceit from those around him –  which is a lovely irony given the technical definition of SHC.

It may be a minor point, but I also love that the film is effectively book-ended by the song “I Don’t Want to Set the World On Fire” by The Ink Spots. This is a song that has been used quite a bit in movies, television, and video games, but I think it particularly fits well here. It can be interpreted thematically as indicative of the fact that Sam never desired to have his abilities, nor did he desire to go on his eventual fiery rampage – again, these were externally thrust upon him. It is also a neat aesthetic foil for the tone of the film – it is a calm, romantic song, set against a frenetic and furiously violent movie. My only complaint is that I wish it was actually at the end of the film – instead, it comes back just prior to the falling action.

Still, this is far from a great movie. It is founded on some ridiculous fears of nuclear energy and unfounded beliefs in SHC, which put it on pretty shaky footing for me. The writing also doesn’t always logically hold together, and some performers (Dourif) make the dialogue work much better than others. That said, I think this is a totally serviceable deep cut for fans of bizarre science-fiction horror movies. Dourif’s performance and the effects work are worth seeking it out on their own, in my opinion.

Leprechaun: Origins

Leprechaun: Origins

Today, I’m going to look at a particularly loathed horror reboot: 2014’s Leprechaun: Origins.

The plot of Leprechaun: Origins is summarized on IMDb as follows:

Two young couples backpacking through Ireland discover that one of Ireland’s most famous legends is a terrifying reality.

The director for Leprechaun: Origins was Zach Lipovsky, who had previously done directing work only on television movies and short films. However, he has gone on to since direct more consistently on television, and is currently attached to a Kim Possible movie.

Taking over the role as the eponymous Leprechaun in the film is professional wrestler Dylan Postl, also known as “Hornswaggle.” Postl has been wrestling for WWE since 2006, and has no other notable acting credits. His association with WWE is likely what got him the role, as the film was produced by WWE studios, which has frequently cast notable wrestlers as actors. Past examples of this practice include John Cena in 12 Rounds, Kane in See No Evil, The Rock in The Scorpion King, and Steve Austin in The Condemned.

The cinematographer for Leprechaun: Origins was Mahlon Todd Williams, whose other credits include 12 Rounds 3, See No Evil 2, and numerous episodes of the television series Legends of Tomorrow.

The editor for the film was Mark Stevens, who also cut The Final Destination, The Number 23, 8MM, Batman Forever, Phone Booth, Freddy vs. Jason, and Batman & Robin, among other films.

Allegedly, star Dylan Postl has never seen a Leprechaun movie, and intentionally didn’t view them after getting the part – he didn’t want his performance to be influenced by the one given by Warwick Davis.

Speaking of Warwick Davis, he apparently wasn’t asked to be involved with Leprechaun: Origins, and has public stated that he would have loved to have reprised his role.

In 2018, Syfy announced that it would be making its own Leprechaun reboot, to be released in 2019. One again, Warwick Davis was passed over, with the role instead going to Linden Porco. However, the tone of the film is reportedly going to be more in line with the original run of Leprechaun movies.

Leprechaun: Origins was widely loathed by critics and audiences alike: it currently holds highly unenviable review statistics, like a 3.3/10 IMDb user rating, and Rotten Tomatoes scores of 0% from critics and 9% from audiences.

In his review of the film for IGN, Cliff Wheatley wrote:

the main characters are so bland that you won’t know their names before they start being offed by the so-called leprechaun. I know B-movie characters are meant to be cannon fodder, but watching cardboard cutouts getting eaten isn’t all that much fun.

This review points out one of the biggest problems with this movie – there is nothing here for an audience to latch on to. There’s nothing inherently wrong with having “cardboard cutouts” making up most of the cast, but something in the film has to give the audience a reason to pay attention. For a lot of slashers, that comes in the form of creatively gore-y demises for the aforementioned cutouts. For the Leprechaun films, though, that engagement has also come from the goofy charisma and rhyming schemes offered by Warwick Davis. Hornswaggle, in this ill-fated reimagining, doesn’t have a chance to win over the audience in the same way. This is because his character is now merely a growling, humorless, feral monster – solely a mechanism for murder.

The fact that this film totally lacks cheesy tone of the original Leprechaun movies says to me that the production had no understanding of what made those movies unique and beloved by fans. My suspicion is that WWE came up with the idea for this movie specifically because they had Hornswaggle – a little person with an Irish stage theme – under contract. This wasn’t a movie made with an intention or vision beyond a capitalistic desire for revenue, and that comes through in the dispassionate final product. It is kind of ironic that this movie was fueled by greed alone – it sounds to me like the kind of thing that would put someone on a murderous leprechaun’s shit list.

On the whole, this is a boring, gruelingly unimaginative horror film, that sits in stark contrast to its predecessors in the franchise. There honestly isn’t a single thing to recommend about it – this is a total and complete failure of a movie. However, it might whet your appetite for a goofy Leprechaun classic – Leprechaun 3, perhaps?

Jennifer’s Body

Jennifer’s Body

Today, I’m going to take a look at the 2009 horror-comedy Jennifer’s Body.

The plot of Jennifer’s Body is summarized on IMDb as follows:

A newly possessed high school cheerleader turns into a succubus who specializes in killing her male classmates. Can her best friend put an end to the horror?

The screenplay for Jennifer’s Body was written by Diablo Cody, who previously won an Academy Award for Juno.  Her other works have included the television shows United States of Tara and One Mississippi, as well as the movies Young Adult and Paradise.

Jennifer’s Body was directed by Karyn Kusama, who also directed the films Aeon Flux, The Invitation, and contributed a segment to the anthology film XX.

The cast of Jennifer’s Body includes Megan Fox (Transformers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), Amanda Seyfried (Les Miserables, Mamma Mia, Mean Girls), Johnny Simmons (Scott Pilgrim vs The World, The Perks of Being a Wallflower), Adam Brody (The O.C., Yoga Hosers, CHIPS), Juan Riedinger (Narcos), J.K. Simmons (Whiplash, Spider-Man, The Accountant, The Ladykillers), and Chris Pratt (Jurassic World, Parks & Recreation, Guardians of the Galaxy).

The cinematographer for the film was M. David Mullen, who also shot The Love Witch, Akeelah and the Bee, The Astronaut Farmer, and numerous episodes of television series like Big Love, United States of Tara, Get Shorty, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and Mad Men.

Plummy Tucker served as the editor for Jennifer’s Body, and also cut the films Aeon Flux and The Invitation for director Karyn Kusama. Notably, Tucker also served as editor for the miniseries 11.22.63.

The music for the film is credited to both Theodore Shapiro (Tropic Thunder, Trumbo, Semi-Pro, Blades of Glory, Idiocracy, Old School) and Stephen Barton (Call of Duty 4, Titanfall).

The town in the movie – Devil’s Kettle – is named after a waterfall in Minnesota’s Judge Magney State Park, which flows into a massive pothole, seemingly into nothingness.

As a tie-in to Jennifer’s Body, a graphic novel was made that expanded on a number of the background characters in the film, and revealed additional details about the monster.

The monster/demon that possesses Fox’s character in the film is, based on its stated details and description, a succubus – a monster from folklore that takes the form of a women, and practices predatory seduction.

The screenplay for Jennifer’s Body was named to the 2007 Black List, which is an annual honor given to a handful of unproduced screenplays deemed to be of high quality. Other screenplays on the list also made it to the screen, such as Selma, The Road, Source Code, Slumdog Millionaire, Zombieland, The Wolf of Wall Street, Doubt, The Revenant, and The Town.

One element of Jennifer’s Body that was covered widely in the media was a kissing sequence between stars Megan Fox and Amanda Seyfried. Both actresses spoke publicly about the scene, as well as writer Diablo Cody. While many assumed that this sequence was included due to pressure from producers for marketing purposes, Cody has claimed that it was always part of the screenplay, but was sensationalized by audiences and the media:

“if the two protagonists of the film were a guy and a girl and in a particularly tense moment, they shared a kiss, no one would say it was gratuitous. But the fact that they’re women means it’s some kind of stunt. It was intended to be something profound and meaningful…Obviously we knew people were going to totally sensationalize it.”

 

While the kissing sequence was apparently in line with Cody and Kusama’s vision, the marketing for the film was almost certainly not, and is what most people attribute the film’s critical and financial failure to. At least one critic blamed the film’s poor reception on “misguided, boy-targeted marketing,” and the film’s co-star, Adam Brody, publicly indicated his displeasure with the campaign, remarking:

“I do think it should win a Razzie for Worst Ad Campaign Ever. Seriously. They couldn’t have done a worse poster or trailer if that’s what they fucking set out to do.”

Financially, Jennifer’s Body proved to be far from a blockbuster: in its lifetime theatrical release, it brought in a box office total of $31.5 million on a production budget of $15 million. Critically, it didn’t fare well on its release: it currently holds a 5.2/10 user rating on IMDb, along with Rotten Tomatoes scores of 43% critics and 34% from audiences.

That being said, Jennifer’s Body is in the midst of a critical re-assessment, and is being revisited by many. Recent articles in publications like Bloody Disgusting and Cosmopolitan have encouraged viewers to give the film another shot, now that the film’s marketing campaign is a distant memory.

It goes without saying that there is a weird mismatch between the film’s marketing and its actual content, and that almost certainly had a huge influence on its critical and financial success. However, when the film is separated from its context, there are still some notable issues that hinder it.

To begin with, I think that there is definitely some potential to the concept behind Jennifer’s Body, but many of its core elements have definitely been done much better in other films. It Follows uses anxieties and sexual terror adeptly, The Faculty utilizes a high school setting for a horror film ideally, and A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night take a similar, predatory adolescent girl and does much more interesting work with the concept. While I do like some of the trope subversions in Jennifer’s Body, such as establishing teenage boys as the targeted victims, it is only addressed once in the film. This is the sort of detail that could have been played up more, and delved into effective satire of the way society treats young women. Those little details can be the difference between a mediocre movie and a good one, if you ask me.

Another issue with this film is its tone. While horror-comedy can be an effective combination, the director has to play a balancing act to pull it off. Here, Cody’s dialogue style creates a distinct tonal mismatch in what is visually a very dark and somber film, which might have been righted in the hands of a different director. There are a few good lines (“lasagna with teeth”), but her writing doesn’t work as well here as it did with the more light-hearted Juno, at least not with the way this film is shot. Frankly, Jennifer’s Body doesn’t fully commit to comedy or horror, and vacillation between them takes nuance to pull off well, which is lacking here.

As far as the performances go, I found Fox to be perfectly decent in her role, though it is definitely more limited than you would imagine – she’s nearly a tertiary character. The real weight of the film is on Seyfried, who does her best to make Cody’s dialogue sound organic. However, she doesn’t handle it nearly as well as Ellen Page, and it comes off as stilted at times.

Personally, I found the most distracting element of the film to be the soundtrack. The selections of contemporaneous alternative music dates the movie, and the selections frequently don’t fit the atmosphere of their scenes. It is pretty obvious that the film was shoehorning in a tie-in soundtrack, in an attempt to bring in an additional market to the theater. Unfortunately, on a rewatch many years later, it definitely hurts the film. At the time, I’m not sure how distracting the music would have been, but it definitely stands out now.

Overall, I think Jennifer’s Body is a pretty mediocre movie that squandered some great potential, even without a poorly-conceived marketing campaign. That said, I think people should give it another shot – particularly women. I suspect there is more here to resonate with for women viewers, which is part of why the male-centered marketing didn’t make sense in the first place. If you think the concept sounds interesting, give it a watch.