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Scream (2022)

Scream (2022)

scream1

I’d like to think that I know when I’m being pandered to, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t a bit flattering regardless. The target audience of the Scream franchise has always been horror hounds and general film dorks, with its reveling in story tropes, genre clichés, and the dramatic irony that comes with audience foreknowledge. The more time you’ve spent rewinding horror franchise VHSs, the more likely that Scream is going to be up your alley. Of course I loved the original Scream – there isn’t much more predictable than that. However, the sequels have been a different story. 

Scream relied on audience familiarity with a genre that dominated the preceding decade to its release, and weaponized the expectations that movie-goers had developed based on everything they had seen from the well-worn body of slasher films since the late 1970s. The sequels, however, relied on the same source materials: they never quite kept pace with the zeitgeist. The Scream franchise never moved on from the VHS era, and audiences clearly did. Films like Cabin in the Woods capitalized on audience meta-knowledge in new ways, and Scream became a relic of 1980s and 1990s culture, just like a dusty VCR in an attic.

The landscape of horror today, however, has shifted dramatically. We’re in a curiously (but pretty solidly) bifurcated era for the genre, defined simultaneously by arthouse “prestige” horror – think anything branded by Jordan Peele or A24 – and a mixed bag of “re-quels” – quasi-reboots of long-dormant franchises, like David Gordon Green’s Halloween, Nia DaCosta’s recent Candyman, or the Spiral entry into the Saw franchise. There hasn’t been a more opportune time to dust off and retool the Scream franchise – there’s a whole new book of rules and audience expectations to tinker and toy with. 

I went into 2021’s Scream with admittedly low expectations. The only trailer I saw gave the impression of a mildly updated remix of the well-worn path: sure, the advances in technology have opened new doors (literally) for Ghostface, but all signs pointed to a re-heat of an old formula with some new gimmicks. Instead, the film itself is in every way a product of our current horror genre zeitgeist, and revels in teasing horror-knowledgeable audiences in exactly the way the original Scream did. Unlike Green’s Halloween, which fully tosses out its endless sprawl of sequel lore, today’s Scream somewhat hand-waves the sequels, but doesn’t omit them entirely as truth within the world. There is no ret-conning to be had here, which is impressive writing gymnastics for a screenplay looking to establish new ground.

Our new Scream introduces a new slate of vibrant characters, who are debatably more charming and relatable when compared to their 1996 predecessors (who I have found more grating on re-watches in recent years). Jack Quaid, Jasmin Savoy Brown, and Dylan Minnette are particular standouts in the ensemble of newcomers, who more than fill the shoes of the previous accessory performers like Matthew Lillard, Liev Schreiber, and Jamie Kennedy. They are joined by a handful of familiar (if much-aged) faces, including David Arquette, Neve Campbell, and Courteney Cox. If you ask me, the new blood was far more compelling than the old, but the stalwarts fill in their roles well.

The new Scream is brutal and visceral in a way that it hasn’t felt like since the inception of the franchise, which plays beautifully in concert with a cast of lovable and relatable knife-fodder. As one character notes in the final act, “our story has stakes,” which makes it stand out in contrast with its fellow Scream sequels. I was genuinely shocked at how well this film succeeded in accomplishing its goals: there’s not an obvious weak link to point out. Even the language of its cinematography bobs and weaves around and through expectations, dangling the audience on a string with well-crafted mise-en-scene and camera movement. One sequence in particular was an absolute joy to watch with an audience, as it artfully elicited gasps and laughs at the creative *absence* of payoffs.

Scream (2022) is an unexpected early highlight for me from the burgeoning cinema landscape of 2022. It is possible that I’m just the perfect audience for this particular form of pandering, but I’m happy to accept that. This was one hell of a good ride, and in my opinion the best sequel Scream could ask for.

Best Movies of 2021

2021

Ok, this is admittedly a bit out of my comfort zone. In the many years that I’ve had this blog, I’ve focused almost exclusively on the worst of cinema: the most critically-reviled of each calendar year, the IMDb Bottom 100, box office flops, and so on. However, despite my dedication to the dregs, I do try to watch good movies from time to time. Since 2017, I’ve been in graduate school, which has cut into my movie-watching time significantly, and this blog has been on the back-burner. That said, I caught a bunch of films in 2021 that I wanted to highlight in a thoroughly subjective, not-at-all ranked list. For some of these, I’m not sure I would even describe them as great films, but they did get my thoughts going. I also haven’t seen a bunch of the major critical darlings of the year, like Red Rocket, The Power of the Dog, The Worst Person in the World, The Tragedy of MacBeth, or Licorice Pizza, so if something is missing here, I probably just haven’t seen it yet.

The French Dispatch

I generally like Wes Anderson’s work, so I wasn’t surprised that I liked his latest. However, I didn’t anticipate liking it as much as I did. This may or may not be my favorite anthology movie, but it certainly has my favorite framing device for one. The eponymous paper feels like a character itself by the end of the film – an amalgamation of the writers and stories that make it up. I also absolutely loved Jeffrey Wright’s performance in particular, and appreciate a somewhat less whimsical application of Wes Anderson’s style. I thought this was maybe his most balanced film, which generally avoided the twee sentiments that turn some away from him without being overly dour, despite the often-grim stories within it.

Last Night in Soho

I might be the most predictable white film dude on the internet in this way, but I am a complete sucker for Edgar Wright’s style. What impressed me about Last Night in Soho, though, is how much he tempered and adapted it to serve a tone and genre outside of his usual wheelhouse. Wright produced a YouTube video recently that discussed his use of the “Texas switch” in the dance sequence of the film, which is certainly a highlight of the work, and showcases where he used the same technique in his earlier films. It is a good watch, and I strongly recommend it. As always, his attention to detail is impressive throughout Soho, and creates an immersive, stylized time warp to the 1960s that is one of the most impressive in recent memory (The Nice Guys comes to mind in a similar way). I loved the performances across the board in this one as well, and found it to be an intriguingly mysterious ride. I have only seen the movie once, and am curious how elements land on a re-watch.

Pig

I don’t think there was a greater cinematic surprise of the year than Pig. Cage’s performance is astounding, and this grief-filled, emotional journey into the underbelly of fine dining is unique, grounded, and at-times viscerally painful in its effectiveness. I saw this at a preview screening, and went in blind expecting a John Wick clone. It is certainly not that – it is far, far better. For all of the Cage detractors out there, this should be a reminder that he is one of the finest thespians of our age.

The Green Knight

This was almost certainly the most polarizing film of the year. It is abstract, imaginative, deeply-stylistic, and perhaps one of the best examples of indulgent, unfettered auteur-ship in many years. For what it is worth, I dug it. I thought is was visually entrancing, thought-provoking, and a bold literary adaptation that didn’t avoid unique flourishes on an established canon. I do think it may have been served better by disentangling the editing process from Lowery’s hands, but I still thought the movie came out impressive. It inarguably benefits from an audience that is familiar with the source literature, though, and could have done a better job of acclimating folks who don’t have vivid memories of an English literature class.

Judas and the Black Messiah

Wait, this came out in 2021? This was my first foray back into a movie theater since March of 2020, and it was a great way to get back to it. The lead performances are fantastic, but I will say that it has faded a bit from my mind after another long, long year. I think it will be due for a re-watch, but I remember coming out of the theater knowing it would make any year-end list of highlights that I would make.

Nightmare Alley

Much like Last Night in Soho, this is the work of an established, beloved director taking on a genre outside of his usual sphere. Cooper puts in a fantastic performance, leading an incredible ensemble from top to bottom. Notably, I loved how Cooper basically mimes through the first 20-odd minutes of the movie, conveying a range of emotions and establishing his character’s essence without a single line of dialogue. This is the feel-bad, grimy, pessimistic movie that 2021 deserved. What an intriguing year to have giallo and noir send-ups among the upper echelon of cinematic offerings. What I will say, however, is that I’m definitely feeling fatigue with “bad white guy” protagonists. The future of noir needs to see some innovation in the content while retaining the stylistic flourishes of the form. I think this film would have been received far better a decade ago, but it is still undeniably fantastic.

Dune

The most anticipated film of the year mostly lived up to the hype. Coming out of the theater, I was blown away. It was an imaginative spectacle with a compelling cast, sharp visuals, and an astounding score. That said, it hasn’t stuck with me like I expected it to. I’m looking forward to the continuation of the story, but I will need to revisit this one, and ruminate a bit on what might have been missing to keep it from getting stuck in my head. I am someone who is definitely prone to being sucked into sprawling, politics-heavy sci-fi and fantasy settings, like Game of Thrones, The Expanse, Star Trek, and The Witcher, so it is all the weirder that Dune didn’t flip a switch for me in a similar way.

The Suicide Squad

Grimy, darkly comedic takes on superheroes are a bit old hat at this point. Deadpool, The Boys, and even James Gunn’s own Super have thoroughly saturated that area over the past decade and change, attempting detournements of the hyper-dominance of comic book adaptations in the zeitgeist. So why did The Suicide Squad work so well for me? I think the zany ensemble certainly helped, and Gunn definitely has a flair for bringing colorful outcasts to the screen. The movie is genuinely funny utilizing methods that many comedies don’t execute nearly as well, like editing gags and physical performances. The simultaneous vulnerability and somewhat-perverse likability of the characters creates an investment and fear for their safety that most superhero movies can’t frequently pull off well either. The Suicide Squad is also an adept satire of American imperialistic attitudes and anti-democratic actions abroad, which is pretty deep, subversive work for a popcorn superhero flick. I also think it lands better in contrast to the preceding Suicide Squad, which was a far less enjoyable, well-crafted work by a wide margin. Simultaneously, Gunn was wise not to completely distance this film from its antecedent, particularly taking a gamble by allowing Joel Kinnaman to redeem himself by taking a significant emotional load for the film. 

Free Guy

Speaking of deep subversion in a popcorn superhero flick, how about an anticapitalistic screed wrapped in endless intellectual property Easter eggs and overt fandom pandering? Free Guy is my pick for the most perplexing film of the year. It ends with characters celebrating the abolition of banks, but it is also deeply mired in corporate cross-marketing of just about every pop culture property they could cram into it. At the same time, it clearly has a deep disdain for the toxic video game and tech-bro culture that it sprouts from, in just the same way that there is a spirit of anti-capitalism beneath the layers of pop culture references. It is arguably appropriate for a movie about a hidden oasis within a world of inane nonsense. All of that might sound like I didn’t like the movie, which isn’t exactly true. In many ways, it is a mess (I particularly don’t love the romantic conclusion). That said, I thought more about this movie after seeing it than most of the films I sat through this year, which should count for something. I also generally dug the visuals and performances: in that sense, it is a fine popcorn flick. I do sense Ryan Reynolds fatigue setting in among film critics, which won’t do this film any favors, but I thought he was far less Deadpool-like than many give him credit for in this film. I think he spends much of the movie effectively channeling the naivete and charm of a puppy, unaware of the chaotic dumpster-fire of a world he exists in. While I think he has let his Deadpool character blend into his wider persona (particularly on social media), I think a bigger issue is that audiences are struggling to see his performances without looking through Deadpool-filtered goggles.

Spider-Man: No Way Home

Spider-Man: No Way Home is, outside of perhaps The Avengers movies and Captain America: Civil War, the Marvel movie with the heaviest reliance on the audience’s prior knowledge of the franchise, and not even just its immediate preceding films in the series. No Way Home requires decades of familiarity with numerous adaptations, and hasn’t seemed to suffer for it at all. It seems that audiences, by and large, have kept up, and did their homework. We’re in a new era of blockbuster cinema that throws back to the infinitely serialized works of yesteryear, rather than the standalone stories of the past few decades. The Avengers and Justice League made this new path clear, but No Way Home asked far more of its audience – and from its story –  than any of those films. Weaving together different adaptations of the franchise – so many disparate threads without natural connective tissue – required artful work from the creators, and an audience prepared for the challenge. It was bold to even attempt, given the reaction to Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3 so many years ago: too many villains, too much story, too muddled. No Way Home somehow pulls it all off – it is a deeply emotional, well-performed, and engaging film that succeeds in so many challenges. There are tons of characters to balance, an immense amount of information to convey, and a complicated tone that blends humor and grief-filled tragedy. Somehow, everyone has room to breathe, and a stage saturated with performers puts just enough of the spotlight on each of them. I don’t think No Way Home is the best film of the year, but I do think it is the most iconic and representative of the state of film today. It is a blockbuster with a foundation in nostalgia, relying on legitimate performers and an intriguing vision that situates itself within the greater sprawling web of a meta-franchise. For better or worst, it is the movie of 2021.

Honorable Mentions

Nobody
Candyman
Gaia
Bo Burnham: Inside
Antlers

 

 

Worst Movies of 2021

Here we are again: we’ve reached the end of 2021, so it is time to take a look at which movies were the worst of the year according to the zeitgeist.

spacejam

This aggregated list of the worst-perceived movies of the calendar year has been an annual endeavor for me since 2016. 2020 was a bit of an oddball, with many outlets electing to skip their “worst of the year” rankings. However, I recently went back to create a 2020 aggregated list while waiting for 2021 “worst of” lists to drop.

chaoswalking

As with previous years, I want to emphasize that this is a measure of public opinion – I’m not assessing any kind of objective quality, but rather gauging the public perception of which movies were the worst of the year. I measure this by compiling published year-end “Worst of 2021” lists (from sources like The Chicago Sun-Times and Variety), then I tally up how often each film appears on these lists. It makes for a simple frequency distribution to visualize how widely despised these various 2021 films were. If you would like to see my tallies, they are available here.

Dear-Evan-Hansen-Trailer

This year, I pulled from 22 published year-end lists of the worst movies of 2021. This year continued a recent trend of a narrowing distribution of films making “worst of” lists: only 100 films were listed across the aggregated 2021 lists, down from 113 in 2020 and 127 in 2019.

As with previous years, there was not a universal consensus for the worst film of the year. In fact, I believe that this year’s “winner” had the fewest votes of a winner I have seen, as it was only included in 10 of the 22 year-end lists I collected, meaning 12 critics completely omitted it from their listings. While there was a single clear winner this year, there was a tight cluster of films towards the top of the distribution. Without further delay, here are the rankings.

  1. Dear Evan Hansen (10/22)
  2. (Tie) Chaos Walking / The Woman in the Window (9/22)
  3. (Tie) Music / Space Jam: A New Legacy (8/22)
  4. Vanquish (7/22)
  5. (Tie) Cosmic Sin / Thunder Force (6/22)

Are there any films that you expected to see that didn’t make the cut? Personally, I was a bit surprised that House of Gucci didn’t slip into a higher position. Of this list, I only caught The Woman in the Window, which I thought was mediocre, but nowhere near the mess of something like Prisoners of the Ghostland. Are there any “worst of 2021” contending films that I need to cover for the blog? Let me know!

Worst Movies of 2020

Hello again, my dear neglected followers and spambots! I have briefly emerged from my reclusion for doctoral studies to deliver a year-late aggregated ranking of the worst perceived movies of 2020.

artemis

Initially, I hadn’t planned to make this post. Despite making an aggregated list of the worst-perceived movies of each year since 2016, I wasn’t particularly motivated to cover 2020 at the end of last year. Honestly, part of that was because I assumed that many places were following The AV Club’s lead in skipping the Worst of 2020 lists. While it does appear that they weren’t the only ones to skip out – a few of my other usual sources didn’t have a post for 2020 either, like Rolling Stone – plenty still put out their annual list of demerited films.

Now that we are hitting the end of 2021, I decided to look back on the widely-maligned year of 2020, as I wait for the inevitable “worst of 2021” lists to be published.

taxcollector

As with previous years, I want to emphasize that this is a measure of public opinion – I’m not assessing any kind of objective quality, but rather gauging the public perception of which movies were the worst of the year. I measure this by compiling published year-end “Worst of 2020” lists (from sources like The Chicago Sun-Times and Variety), then I tally up how often each film appears on these lists. It makes for a simple frequency distribution to visualize how widely despised these various 2019 films were. If you would like to see my tallies, they are available here.

dolittle

This year, I pulled from 19 published year-end lists of the worst movies of 2020. On the whole, there was a narrower distribution of movies for 2020 than for 2019: down to 113 movies from 127. However, the 2020 total was still higher than the total movies that received votes in 2016, 2017, or 2018.

As with previous years, there was not a universal consensus for the worst film of the year. The “winner” was only included in 13 of the 19 year-end lists, meaning 6 critics completely omitted it from their listings. Unlike previous years that have featured plenty of ties at the top of the list, there were three clear medalists for 2020. However, there was a glut of movies vying in the fourth and fifth positions. Without further delay, here are the rankings.

  1. Dolittle (13/19)
  2. Artemis Fowl (10/19)
  3. Blumhouse’s Fantasy Island (7/19)
  4. (Tie) The Grudge / Like A Boss / The Last Days of American Crime (6/19)
  5. (Tie) Songbird / Irresistible / The Wrong Missy / The Tax Collector / 365 Days / After We Collided (5/19)

Are there any films that you expected to see that didn’t make the cut? Are any of these films in need of reappraisal? Are there any that I need to cover for the blog? Let me know!

The Cage

Recently, I have found myself gravitating towards the work of Nicolas Cage. This shouldn’t be all that surprising given I have a movie blog, right? It isn’t even particularly new ground for me: I’ve covered the obligatory Nicolas Cage fare, like Face/Off, The Wicker Man, and Vampire’s Kiss, and a good number or less-remembered flicks like Army of One, Drive Angry, and Snake Eyes. Of course, I like Nicolas Cage movies. It makes sense that I would watch them from time to time.

However, this recent gravitation hasn’t been by choice. It feels elemental. Like a cosmic thrall that has drawn me back to Cage: something celestial and potentially foreboding. In the past few weeks, I have “coincidentally” stumbled into watching Moonstruck, Adaptation, Prisoners of the Ghostland, Pig, and Willy’s Wonderland. I can’t think of a wider range of films that better collectively encapsulates the essence of Cage. Pig features an inspiring, emotionally engrossing, quietly dramatic Cage performance that is easily one of the best of the past year. Willy’s Wonderland is an absolute train wreck of an action-horror movie where Cage perplexingly doesn’t utter a single line of dialogue. Prisoners of the Ghostland is a wild, visionary science fiction film that feels like suffering a fever dream in the worst possible way, propelled by an appropriately unhinged Cage performance. Adaptation is debatably the gold standard of Nicolas Cage, who flawlessly and comedically portrays two fictional(ish) central characters who are writing the unparalleled screenplay for the film within the world of the movie. Moonstruck features early Cage, long before his descent into self-parody, but still exuding inexorable, deeply compelling weirdness, all while matching the tone of the off-beat romantic comedy.

Each of these films has gotten my gears turning about Nicolas Cage as one of the great, enigmatic fixtures in the world of screen acting over the past four decades (and who looks to continue being one for the foreseeable future). I’m still ruminating on what to do about the apparent sword of Damocles over my head that is the career of Nicolas Cage: is this my next great destiny? Is this sign a klaxon call to action, or a siren’s song to my demise?

Currently, I’m still wrapped up in graduate studies, which is leaving me very little time for this blog. Outside of the occasional Ivy On Celluloid, I haven’t had much time to write for fun (though I’m doing a ton of writing for not-fun). However, I am still finding some time to watch movies, and I think Cage might be drawing me back here. I suppose we’ll see. I can definitely feel gravity’s pull.

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Ivy On Celluloid: Star Trek (PT 1)

Star Trek: The Next Generation
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

Star Trek: The Next Generation (TV Series 1987–1994) - IMDbStar Trek: Deep Space Nine (TV Series 1993–1999) - IMDb

In today’s quick installment of Ivy On Celluloid, I’d like to share a video essay I made for a class a few months back, covering the portrayals of higher education in the beloved Star Trek franchise. 

In particular, this video focuses on two Star Trek characters whose higher education journeys are chronicled over the course of The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine: Wesley Crusher and Nog, respectively.

When I have the time, I’m planning to come back to this topic – there is a lot to explore in the Star Trek universe when it comes to higher education, and these two intriguingly disparate college student narratives are just the beginning. I also have an academic companion paper that I wrote as part of this project – I’ll figure out what I want to do with that soon enough. 

Ivy On Celluloid: Happy Death Day

Happy Death Day

In today’s installment of Ivy On Celluloid, I’m going to take a look at 2017’s Happy Death Day: a time twister of a slasher movie.

The plot of Happy Death Day is summarized on IMDb as follows:

A college student must relive the day of her murder over and over again, in a loop that will end only when she discovers her killer’s identity.

The screenplay for Happy Death Day was written by Scott Lobdell, who is primarily known for his extensive comic book writing for series like Uncanny X-Men and Generation X.  The director for the film was Christopher Landon, who has worked as both a writer and producer on a number of entries into the Paranormal Activity franchise. Some other notable crew members include editor Gregory Plotkin (Get Out, Game Night) and cinematographer Toby Oliver (Get Out, Fantasy Island, Breaking In).

The primary filming location for Happy Death Day is New Orleans, LA, on the campus of Loyola University – New Orleans and in the surrounding area. As an aside, I’ve spent a fair amount of time on this campus, as I attended my first two years of college next door at Tulane University.

To begin the higher education analysis of Happy Death Day, let’s see if the fictional “Bayfield University” is actually a loosely fictionalized version of a specific university. As mentioned previously, the movie was filmed on the campus of Loyola University – New Orleans. If Bayfield was meant to be any specific school, it would make sense for it to be Loyola-NO. However, there are some key details of Bayfield that indicate that it is likely a distinct institution from Loyola-New Orleans, rather than a stand-in. First, Loyola-New Orleans is a private Jesuit university, one of 27 in the United States.  While it is not explicitly stated, Bayfield University appears to be a stand-in for a public, state university, given the prominence of athletics in campus life, and the apparent absence of religiosity on campus. Another detail that distinguishes Bayfield from Loyola-NO is the presence of a university hospital and medical center – while this location has a prominent role in the film, Loyola-NO does not have such a facility. Notably, Bayfield University does retain the color scheme of Loyola-New Orleans – red and gold. However, Bayfield University’s iconography is perhaps the most significant change from Loyola University – New Orleans.

The mascot for Bayfield University featured in the film is a giant baby, whose image is co-opted by the killer(s) throughout the story via a creepy baby mask. The “Bayfield Babies” would certainly be in the running for one of the worst university athletic team names in the world, though there are perhaps some weirder examples in real life.  As I covered in my post on Van Wilder, schools like University of California – Santa Cruz (Banana Slugs) and Evergreen State College (Geoducks) have exceedingly strange team names, but today I am going to focus specifically on horrifying mascots.

There are a few college mascots that merit acknowledgement when it comes to the uncanny and unnatural ability to conjure nightmares.  First, I think Wichita State University’s mascot, known as WuShock, deserves recognition. Officially described by the university as “a big, bad, muscle-bound bundle of wheat,” both iterations of WuShock I have seen are equally unnerving.

Another terrifying university mascot of note is Purdue University’s hammer-wielding Purdue Pete, whose unfeeling, void-like eyes can burn their way into your soul. The University of Louisville’s Louie the Cardinal has a similar overt aggressive energy to WuShock, with the added intimidation factor of having grinding, omnivorous human teeth inside of his over-sized bird beak.  Perhaps the most unnerving of college mascots, however, is Western Kentucky University’s Big Red – an undefined blob-like creature with a gaping maw that has been described as the “amorphous, ambiguous, asexual and always lovable representative of the school’s athletics,” and is renowned for its unusual ability to “make expressions” and “show emotion.” Personally, I would prefer to keep mascots emotionless.

An interesting detail of Bayfield University in Happy Death Day is the absence of “blue light” emergency phones. These have been a visible campus safety fixture on college and university campuses for decades. They are meant to provide a direct line to campus police or security in the case of any emergency situation, such as the confrontation in the dark tunnel towards the beginning of the film.  Interestingly, there has been growing debate about their continued operation due to the costs they incur, coupled with the ubiquity of cell phones. Many campuses have begun using emergency mobile applications to phase out the blue light phones, whereas others, like the University of Colorado – Boulder and the University of Nebraska – Lincoln, have already eliminated the blue light phones.

Early in the film, a brownout occurs throughout the Bayfield University campus, the effects of which are seen in a sorority house by the characters Tree and Danielle. Afterwards, Danielle exclaims, “Our tuition money at work!” This got me curious about the ownership of fraternity and sorority houses – Danielle’s statement seems to imply that the university owns the house, but I was under the impression that houses were usually owned by outside parties, like alumni or the national fraternity/sorority organizations. According to information I was able to dig up from Appalachian State University, the earliest fraternity chapter houses were owned by chapter alumni, and not by the host university. However, this isn’t always the case today. At the University of Pennsylvania, for example, 24 of 32 fraternity and sorority houses are directly owned by the university. Likewise, fraternities and sororities at North Carolina State University, Georgia Tech, and the University of Maryland – College Park live in a mixture of university-owned and privately owned houses. In contrast, at the University of Washington all fraternity and sorority housing is privately owned.

During a number of the timelines in the film, a murder occurs within a sorority house. The first thing that is clearly evoked by these instances, particularly given the fact that there is an escaped killer nearby, is Ted Bundy’s spree at Florida State University’s Chi Omega house, which occurred after he escaped from custody. While the fictitious serial killer in Happy Death Day does not bear a resemblance to Ted Bundy, the implication that he targets college women and is prone to escape attempts draws a parallel between them.

Despite the presence of a serial killer, it is ultimately revealed that Tree is the repeated victim of a murder plot by her roommate. After doing some digging, I was able to find a handful of examples of college roommates committing murder. In 2007, a University of Arizona student stabbed her roommate 23 times because she had been exposed for stealing $500.  In 1995, a student at Harvard University murdered her roommate before subsequently killing herself, which became the subject of a book that criticized Harvard’s mental health services for students. A recent case of apparent college roommate murder occurred in 2019, when a Clark Atlanta University student was allegedly killed by her roommate and her roommate’s boyfriend. Both of them have plead not guilty, and a trial is forthcoming.

A number of times throughout the movie, an unnamed student is shown passing out during what appears to be a  hazing ritual. The student appears to be a fraternity pledge who has been forced to stay up all night while standing and singing with other pledges. There are countless articles that have outlined dangerous hazing practices that have occurred on college campuses. Universities have long acknowledged the safety issues inherent to hazing, and have widely adopted strict anti-hazing institutional policies, which are intended to curb potentially dangerous hazing rituals. Further, there are anti-hazing laws in a number of states. However, in 2018, Oracle: The Research Journal of the Association of Fraternity/Sorority Advisors published a document analysis of anti-hazing policies and legislation, which critiques some of their notable shortcomings and provides a fantastic overview how hazing persists in higher education.  Because of the public scrutiny and admonishment of hazing practices, it seems unlikely to me that hazing, even of this debatably innocuous sort, would be carried out on campus in broad daylight. It seems more likely to me that hazing would at least happen behind closed doors, in order to avoid formal repercussions for the organization.

A number of times throughout the film, a particular focus is placed on the dietary restrictions placed on members of the sorority Kappa Pi Lambda by their apparent leader, Danielle, in order for the members to maintain a consistent image. This kind of food policing by sorority leadership comes up occasionally in higher education films, usually coupled with gags about eating disorders among sorority members. There are a handful of research studies on implementing programs to prevent eating disorders among sorority members that focus on either individuals or the sorority social systems as a whole,  but there isn’t much that indicates concretely that sorority members are more likely to have eating disorders than college women on the whole. A phenomenological study on perceptions among sorority women found that “sorority women may have a greater fear of becoming fat, are more dissatisfied with their bodies. and are more weight preoccupied and concerned with dieting than are college women from previous studies,” which could put them at greater risk of developing eating disorders. While there is a research study that indicates that sorority members develop a greater “drive for thinness” as a result of their sorority membership over three years when compared to non-sorority peers, there was no indication that they have higher rates of bulimia or general body dissatisfaction compared to their unaffiliated peers.

All of that said, the Kappa standards in Happy Death Day do seem consistent with a leaked 2013 email from a University of Southern California sorority to members which Jezebel described as “unhinged”:

Start eating healthy today and you’ll feel so much better by the time polish week and recruitment starts. Stay away from fried and super sugary foods. Your face will seriously brighten up. Also, exercise. Start now and you’ll have way more energy and endurance for the long hours of recruitment.

One of my favorite things about Happy Death Day is how it portrays a casual day on a college campus. Most college movies gloss over the hustle and bustle of the college campus in the daylight in favor of the classroom setting or the debauchery of nighttime. Happy Death Day spends some quality time on a quad at the beginning of each repeated cycle, showing students collecting petition signatures, folks hanging out on the grass, a flurry of assorted noises, and the seemingly perpetual human motion of a buzzing university at full capacity. It is a strange element to be left out of so many college films, but Happy Death Day captures the spirit of a daytime college campus in these sequences better than any other film that I can think of.

There are quite a few other topics I could cover from Happy Death Day – university policies about sexual relations between faculty and students, suicide on campus, violence at fraternities, etc. – but I have either already covered them in other Ivy On Celluloid features, or plan to cover them with another film.

On the whole, Happy Death Day is an entertaining horror-comedy movie that is reminiscent of a number of classics: there are explicit nods to Groundhog Day, and thematic similarities to the Scream franchise and other subsequent self-aware slashers. I’m hesitant to say that this is a great movie, but I found it to be a pretty good late night horror film, and a surprisingly interesting depiction of higher education. Though it does lean on some lazy stereotypes, spends a bit too much time and effort making the lead unsympathetic, and takes too long to get the momentum rolling, there are definitely things to like about Happy Death Day.  I can recommend this confidently to horror fans out there, particularly if they are into the Scream and Cabin In The Woods brand of self-aware horror.

A big thanks to my old Columbus film critic buddies Hope Madden and George Wolf, who inspired me to take a look at Happy Death Day. I recently hopped on their amazing horror podcast Fright Club to discuss college horror movies, which included a little discussion of Happy Death Day. Check it out!

Ivy On Celluloid: Best College Horror (Fright Club)

Hey all! I recently joined a couple of my old film critic buddies, Hope Madden and George Wolf, for an episode of their horror movie podcast, Fright Club. We discussed a handful of the best college-set horror movies from over the years, and I talked about some of my work on the Ivy On Celluloid series about depictions of higher education on film. The episode is up today, and I highly recommend checking it out!

Fright Club Podcast | Listen via Stitcher for Podcasts

Tammy and the T-Rex (Gore Cut)

Tammy and the T-Rex (Gore Cut)

About five years ago, I covered the 1994 theatrical cut of Tammy and the T-Rex here on the blog. In that iteration, the film is an absurd, goofy film about the mind of a teenage boy becoming trapped inside of a robotic dinosaur. At the time, I reported that the film had an alternate cut, that featured gratuitous gore and a much less family-friendly tone:

Apparently, there is alternate cut of Tammy and the T-Rex that was released in Italy, which features enough violence and gore that it would have received an R-rating from the MPAA. In total, this cut is less than 10 minutes longer, but has never been released in English.

Last year, the folks at Vinegar Syndrome got a hold of this Italian-released gore cut, and restored this strange movie into its much stranger, gorier form. After touring with the restoration for a time, it was recently released on blu-ray, which gave me the chance to check it out.

Despite the fact that little run-time is added to the movie, the restored sequences are cartoonishly over the top with their violence, and the overall experience is that much more fun for it. The satisfaction of watching people get flattened and eviscerated by a robot dinosaur is unparalleled. This iteration really puts John Carl Buechler’s delightful vintage b-movie effects work on display, which is never a bad thing. Tammy and the T-Rex was a solid recommendation before this gore restoration, now it is mandatory viewing for bad movie fans. Seriously, make this a priority.

Cats (2019)

Cats

You knew this was coming.

We need to talk about Cats.

Shortly after I published my aggregated measure of the Worst Movies of 2019, the review embargo on Cats lifted, and one of the biggest cinematic disasters of recent memory hit theaters. Tens of millions of dollars seemingly evaporated, there was a high-profile attempt by the studio to “patch” the effects within a week of the film’s release, film critics collectively lost their minds trying to one-up each other with surrealist, rambling reviews, and theater chains like Alamo Drafthouse hosted packed “rowdy” screenings of the film in the wake of a countless wave of memes about folks going to screenings while intoxicated with a variety of substances. It was a bad movie touchstone event. A quasi-phenomenon of trash cinema.

I saw Cats a couple of times over the course of this frenzy. The first time, I tried to focus on positive elements of the film, hoping to add something novel to the discourse, a la FilmJoy’s delightful Deep Dive series.  It was…somewhat difficult. I can’t justify why I went the second time, but I don’t regret it.

I could go through the same points that every reviewer has already thoroughly blunted – the off-putting human hands, the curious choice to have cats wear fur coats, the inconsistent size scales, the inexplicable eroticism, etc. However, I couldn’t muster any enthusiasm for writing about that.

In the past, I hosted a podcast here at Misan[trope]y called The Plotopsy Podcast, where I tried to dissect the issues that contributed to a film’s critical or financial failure. While I haven’t gone back to it in a while, this is a question that always interests me. In the case of Cats, I have some suspicions as to what went wrong.

Ashley Lee of the Los Angeles Times put some of the blame of the Cats failure on the inherent difficulties of adapting concept musicals to the big screen, which I think does carry some water. However, as she points out, concept musicals like Chicago and Cabaret have worked on the screen in the past. More on target is her observation that much of the spectacle and awe of the stage version of Cats is lost in the film adaptation amidst ill-conceived digital fur, exposed human hands, and litany of what Justin Chang referred to as “grotesque design choices.”

Let’s start with one of the few positives of the film – I genuinely think the choreography is quite good. This isn’t exactly my area of expertise, but my lay opinion is that there was some great effort on the part of the performers and choreographers to put a good performance on. For instance, I think the Skimbleshanks sequence may be the only roundly “okay” part of the movie, thanks entirely to those two parties. However, throughout the movie, that effort is lost in the trappings of digital fur. On my second watch through the movie, I tried to pay more attention to the dancing, particularly in the background. The digital gilding of fur on the actors has an odd muting effect on their motions – they come off as intangible in their glossy fluidity. One of the charms of dance performances is the raw humanity of it – the contortions of muscles and tactile physicality is an integral part of the spectacle. With the stage version of Cats, this isn’t lost beneath practical effects. Under a digital shroud, the effect is all but completely evaporated.

Let’s discuss the effects a bit more – I think this, more so than anything else, has been the greatest point of criticism leveled at the film. The “uncanny valley” effect that comes from sub-par simulacrums of human expressions and movement is on full display, to haunting and disconcerting effect. However, it is hard to anticipate the quality of effects used to this extent. There’s simply no way anyone on set could have predicted exactly what the movie would ultimately look like – the process of adding digital effects after filming is almost like making a second movie on its own.

The best, if only, ways to estimate the quality of effects is their cost, the time allotted to create them, and the reputation of the houses hired to provide them. We know the money was spent for a quality product, but who actually provided them? The two groups that provided most of the work on Cats were Moving Picture Company and The Mill. MPC just won an Academy Award for visual effects on 1917,  and has contributed work to films like Life of Pi, Guardians of the Galaxy, The Martian, The Jungle Book, and Blade Runner 2049, all of which garnered positive receptions for their effects. The Mill has plenty of credits as well, if a bit less lauded, including television shows like Doctor Who, Vikings, and True Detective, as well as an assortment of films. Basically, these are teams that know how to do effects work.

But were they given the time to get the job done? Visual effects is work that is difficult to rush – throwing money at it doesn’t necessarily mean it will go any faster or smoother. Reportedly, the Cats effects were rushed from the start for the ambitious release date, and ‘completed’ only within days of the premiere. What’s more, tinkering was demanded after the disastrous response to the film’s trailer online, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

The effects were supposed to be ground-breaking, and a marketing gimmick to rival the awe-inspiring practical effects on stage. I suspect the producers were anticipating that, at least. Even if they weren’t Avatar quality, the producers almost certainly expected them to be good enough to use as a tactic to bring people into the theater, just like the stage play. Unfortunately, I don’t think they grasped the scope, or had realistic expectations. Maybe with more money and more time, this could have been the spectacle they were hoping for, but that is highly speculative. If I were to guess, there were plenty of tense conversation between the producers and the effects houses about the projected release date, and what could realistically be expected. And we got what we got.

With that, I want to shift to marketing. I believe that the disaster of Cats can’t be understood without a look at the way the marketing was planned, and integrated into the film’s production. Aside from using the effects as a marketing gimmick, I suspect that much of the casting was done with an explicit eye to marketing – roles were almost certainly cast with a handful of qualities in mind. They needed performers with followings and platforms, who could usher their flocks into the theater. A baked-in audience of loyal fans is essentially guaranteed ticket sales, right? I suspect folks like Taylor Swift, James Corden, Jason DeRulo, and Idris Elba were brought in with this explicit thinking in mind. Swift was even a double-dip, as she also contributed an original song to the movie, which I’m sure the producers expected to be an easy award nod. On the other end of the spectrum, in order to cast the broadest net into the general population, Cats brought stage credibility in the forms of lauded individuals like Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, and Francesca Hayward. The theater and performance aficionados would surely be pleased. To add to it, Tom Hooper has had success adapting a stage hit to the big screen – folks were inexplicably fond of his take on Les Miserables, which garnered an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture. Surely this will bring public confidence to the project.

It is important to note, particularly for folks who don’t remember, that Cats was a phenomenon on the stage, and primarily a marketing phenomenon at that. So, these pandering tactics for the film iteration shouldn’t be a surprise. Overall, critics were not fond of the material from the start, long before they salivated over new and inventive ways to eviscerate the film adaptation. However, it was a marketer’s dream and a persistent crowd-pleaser. It was inoffensive, nonviolent, gimmicky, devoid of intellectual depth or an ethical challenge to an audience, family-friendly to the bone, and bolstered by an iconic logo that infected the globe. The whole affair was allegedly cute by means of its loose association with real-life cats, a perennial delight for the masses. Cats is, on paper, a rare property with near-universal potential for attracting the widest possible audience. For producers who might be a bit out-of-touch with the zeitgeist, they probably saw a film adaptation of this material to be an inherent winner in concept. After all, cats are as big as ever on the internet. Kids love cats, old people love cats…every major demographic seems to love cats. And Cats was a huge hit on the stage! This is a sure win, they must have thought.

I suspect that the producers anticipated that their casting machinations would coalesce with residual loyalty to the stage play to attract both young folks and aging audiences alike. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if they saw the success of Hamilton as indicating a re-invigorated enthusiasm for stage musicals, without even a basic understanding of why folks enjoyed Hamilton. Much like Cats, there was a lack of depth or insight behind their grand aspirations.

A lot has been said of the decision to release Cats opposite to Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. Of course, I think the release date should have been buried in January or later, but more for the benefit of the effects than to avoid Star Wars competition. To be honest, I don’t think they ever thought that Cats would be competing with Star Wars – the producers were almost certainly focused on the potential of the Christmas-time date and historical musical successes in the slot, as reported by SlashFilm back in 2018:

The holiday season is…big on musical movies – Les Miserables, another musical adaptation from Tom Hooper, opened on December 25, 2012. The adaptation of Chicago hit theaters December 27, 2002. And last year, The Greatest Showman danced onto the screen on December 20.

Even though there was a wide net cast for Cats to general audiences, I’m sure Universal saw it as counter-programming to Star Wars, likely to catch audiences who weren’t on board with the hyperspace franchise train – the sluggish response to Solo might have given Universal some confidence going up against the Disney titan as well, but I’m not sure how much that played into the decision. The way that Universal held tight to the release date despite the effects issues says to me that they were focused on the specific potential of holiday date revenues.

So, what went wrong with Cats? Blaming the effects alone doesn’t get to the source of the rot, and I believe it places too much blame on effects workers who were forced into a tough position. This is a film that was flawed from conception. It was, in my opinion, meticulously concocted as a marketing scheme rather than an artistic enterprise. That in-authenticity seeps from its pores, and the stench carries. There was also certainly a false foundation to its construction – it turns out that there isn’t the residual fondness for the Cats brand that was relied upon, nor were the marketing powers of celebrities enough to sucker in audiences.

Cats is what it is. In truth, it is a bereft and shallow product of a bereft and shallow enterprise. Cats is capitalism put through a prism of digital fur. If anything, its appropriation into the bad movie canon is the only way it could have found a form of salvation. We have taken a wretched thing, placed it in a hot air balloon, and let it fly into oblivion, where it always should have remained.