The Indefinsibles: Exorcist III (1990)

Gabby: The Indefinsibles investigated a mental asylum to defend…

Jeremy: The Exorcist III. IT’S FINE!!!

Jeremy: If you’re new to this site, the three of us get together and each pick a movie we want to defend set around a certain theme. Well, usually around a certain theme – ’cause we’re getting back together for the first time in 2017 with a free-for-all. First up is my pick, the theatrical cut of Exorcist III.

I wanted to pay tribute to William Peter Blatty, who passed away earlier this year. He’s responsible for some of the greatest horror stories of the 20th century. On top of that, as an American, I was looking for a film that reflected my current fears about the mess we’re currently in. Exorcist III is a perfect fit for that: it’s about making sense of the world while surrounded by the evil we’re capable of.

Another reason I have a particular fondness for it: I was twelve when this premiered on HBO. This was soon after my parents realized I wasn’t starting fires or performing unnecessary surgery on the pets and let me start watching whatever I wanted. This wasn’t my first R-rated movie or anything – but possibly my first full-on R-rated horror movie. Exorcist III rocked my world.

At the time, the first hour of this film felt like a living thing… sinister and coiled, waiting to strike. exorcist-4I had trouble getting to sleep for days afterward. And even back then, movies rarely scared me.

As an adult, the seams from all the studio-enforced reshoots are obvious, but the first hour is almost without equal among horror movies – especially the way it balances characters, themes, and scares. And man, there are scares here.

Brett: This is the second time we’ve watched an Exorcist sequel that would be a better movie if not tied to the Exorcist franchise.

I’ve avoided the movie for years. Bad reviews and tales of the forced-at-gunpoint reshoots. The story of a cop chasing a copycat serial killer who turns out to be a ghost would be a major second act reveal… if it wasn’t obvious that it’s about g-g-g-ghosts right off the bat with the title.

It’s a pretty decent movie, but it has a pacing issues.

I remember seeing an interview with a horror writer in the ’90s. She had built her career from werewolf and monster stories, but she was just starting a new series about serial killers. She said serial killers were the monsters for the ’90s. She had her finger on the pulse there. I feel like there was a hell of a lot of serial killers in the ’90s.

Jeremy: When we were planning this round of movies, you mentioned never having seen this.10626_1 Based on the previous movies we’ve covered, I figured you’d be lukewarm on it. I get the impression that supernatural horror isn’t your thing.

I think you – and just about everyone else – would prefer Blatty’s original novel, Legion, or his director’s cut. There’s not an exorcist or exorcism in sight. It’s much closer to being a supernatural mystery the whole way through, without all the cheap theatrics in the theatrical cut.

Brett: I would be interested in seeing the original cut. Isn’t it available somewhere?

Jeremy: It’s available with the Scream Factory re-release. The excised footage could be only recovered from VHS tapes of the dailies, so the movie constantly cuts back and forth between a beautiful Blu-Ray remaster and rough – even by VHS standards – 4×3 footage.

If nobody minds having it spoiled, we can discuss the differences.

Brett: I don’t mind. I am curious to know what tinkering went on.

Gabby: Before we move on, I wanted to add that I really like supernatural horror when it involves more than jump scares. And this movie definitely has more on its mind, though I enjoy the supernatural aspects of it. It would have had an easier time being its own thing without the title. I enjoy some of the ties to the original through exorcisms and exorcists (when not included the last section of the film). It gives an added layer of unease and a unique link between the victims of the killer.

Jeremy: So let’s talk about the changes. The opening scenes have more character beats and clearer exposition for where the story was originally headed. It’s established that Brad Dourif was Father Karras before he sacrificed himself at the end of The Exorcist.

Jason Miller, who originally played Karras, is not in the film. This recasting – and the addition of Father Morning – comprise most of the reshoots. The basic idea – that the Gemini Killer is possessing senile patients to do his work – is the same. The difference is the spirit of the real Father Karras moved on the night he fell down those steps. All that remains inside his body is the transplanted soul of the Gemini Killer. There’s no need for an exorcism or all the ridiculous pyrotechnics in the theatrical cut.ishot-951

In both versions, the Gemini wants Kinderman to go to the press and report that the killings have resumed. After the attack on his daughter (holy shit, that scene…), Kinderman returns to the Gemini’s cell and just unloads his revolver into him. He doesn’t say a word. Cut to credits.

There’s probably something missing here – because not all the footage could be recovered – but I think you’re supposed to infer that the only way to stop the Gemini is to kill him. Similar to how Karras sacrificed his life in the original film, Kinderman is most likely sacrificing his career, if not his freedom.

It’s a better movie, but the ending is as anti-climatic as the theatrical cut is overblown. The problem with both cuts is the same: once Kinderman discovers “the man in cell 11,” most of the second hour is the killer telling us how he did it. There’s more procedural work in the Director’s Cut, but each version shifts into low gear and rarely gets back the suspense of the first hour. There are a few exceptions, like the attack on Kinderman’s family. And, of course, the hallway jump scare. Probably the best jump scare there is.

Brett: That’s a good jump scare, mostly because it’s not a fake scare (like a cat or something) and it gives our imagination a gory image to invent. I was impressed with the restraint the movie shows, considering they could have coated the walls with blood.

Jeremy: I love the restraint here, which is something I want from horror movies aiming to scare you. It’s one of the main reasons the film remains creepy on repeat viewings. I’m curious if that was because Blatty knew he couldn’t top Friedkin or this was just Blatty being allowed to do things his way.

It’s shot more like a film from the ’70s. Paced that way, too. That out of time feeling adds to the unsettling tone. Even if this isn’t as flashy as The Exorcist, it’s effective at getting under your skin.

Gabby: I also agree about the restraint. Very impressive. Especially from a sequel to a horror movie.

The first hour is so well-balanced, I agree Jeremy. The characters are defined and I did really jump at one point (yes it was that jump scare). But it was more the unsettling feeling it evoked that is somewhat similar to some nightmares I have had.

I agree with Brett in what he said about restraint and how it lets our imaginations get to run riot. Blatty understood something really important with the human psyche, we can dream up the most terrifying things with our imaginations. And the film lets you go down that road on your own, by setting up something other than ‘horror’ and letting you fill in the blanks.

As Jeremy said, the ’70s pace does add that unsettling tone. 4883702_l1There is sometimes a slight lingering on scenes when they seem like they have ended, with a moment or two in silence. When Kinderman is with the dead body of Father Dyer for instance. There are a just a few moments near the end of the scene added where someone else might have cut away. Kinderman is standing with his hands together. He looks uncomfortable, scared, angry, grief-stricken and the silence in the room allows you to know there is a lot more to come.

Jeremy: I love the sound design. This is a surprisingly effective movie to put on to show off your sound system. The scene you mention wouldn’t work half as well without the silence between the dialog, which grows into a low, rumbling thunderstorm as the scene builds. Like you said, it’s more muted than you would expect from a film like this.

Now let’s get to something that isn’t muted. What does everyone think of George C. Scott? Too much ham?

Brett: It feels like the right amount for the material.

Gabby: At times, it is too much. But I like it when he is bubbling away before he shouts and slams the desk. It might have been more effective if he had got close to boiling but didn’t. And then eventually explodes.

Jeremy: One of the big draws for me here is George C. Scott as Kinderman. Even on paper, it’s a big character. But you’re right – there are choices he made where less would’ve been more. Most of that is in the scenes immediately after Father Dyer’s murder, when Kinderman is a wreck.

The majority of the time, it works. And I love this character. He’s a good man with a hard job, and his life is obviously not just the job. He’s world-weary, not burnt out. There’s love in his life. Almost any other writer would make Kinderman a divorced, deadbeat dad with a dirty secret the Gemini could exploit.

I appreciate that Kinderman is allowed to be an older man. He’s likely close to retirement, but it’s never mentioned. (Something else I appreciate.) I see a little of my grandfather in the character – at least in terms of a man who used to be able to hold it all in, but these days the tears and frustration and love just pour out.

Also, how crazy is it that this movie starts with two older men marking the time since they lost a friend? Not only does George C. Scott headline a movie in 1990, there’s only two speaking parts, I’m pretty sure, from characters under 25. That’s a statistical anomaly for a Hollywood movie courting the usual Friday night crowd. I‘m guessing we got that (and everything else you wouldn’t expect from a movie in 1990) because of the first movie’s clout, along with the trainwreck that was Exorcist II – which I’ve still never seen, despite owning the entire series.

Brett: I have seen video reviews of it online. That seems to be close enough for me.

Jeremy: I’ve avoided reading or watching anything about it. I know there will come a night where I can’t sleep. In that restless, magic time, around 2 a.m. – when bad ideas suddenly become good ideas – the time will be right to put it on. When that time comes, I want to go in fresh.

On the Scream Factory special features, Brad Dourif starts to talk about Exorcist II, hesitates, and then calls it a piece of shit. It’s glorious. Speaking of Dourif, are there any other performances we want to talk about?

Brett: Okay, Dourif. d36a17ccd46bb20653fa6607a1970474I felt his performance matched Scott’s pretty well. That’s probably why I didn’t feel Scott was over the top, he matches the person who he spends the most time talking with. I found using two actors to portray what is essentially the same person a very interesting choice.

Jeremy: It works way better than it’s supposed, given the crazy story behind it all.

Brett: What was the story? I thought it was a stylistic choice.

Jeremy: From the way Dourif tells it, not at all. Again, Dourif is originally cast to play the Gemini Killer, whose spirit is in Karras’ vacated body. The studio decides to recast the role entirely and have Jason Miller return.

I’m guessing the studio felt like someone from the first movie had to come back. It’s actually a studio note I get, at least to a degree. A lot of the movie hangs on Kinderman’s affection for Karras. There’s a better chance audiences will share that affection with the original actor in the part.

Brett: Ahhh, good old studio interference…

Jeremy: Sadly, Miller was fighting a losing battle with alcoholism, and he couldn’t do all the speeches and long takes. Then, and only then, is Dourif brought back in. That’s how we get what’s in the movie. Jason Miller is Karras – the actual Karras – but when the personality of the Gemini comes forward, it’s Dourif.

It all works surprisingly well. The “legion” isn’t just the psych ward as originally intended, it’s also the warring forces inside Karras. That lends some emotional stakes the original cut didn’t have. On the other hand, the Father Morning scenes don’t work. Not in the slightest.

Brett: No, that’s a disaster. You can see the new pages of the script right on the screen when he shows up. Hell, you can tell the ink is still wet on those pages.

Jeremy: The only benefit to the reshoots is Kinderman’s arc. He gets a moment with the real Karras. Also, the “I believe…” speech pays off Kinderman’s existential crisis at the beginning of the film: he can only rationalize evil in a world without gods or monsters.

At least, that’s the way I read it. Even if I like some of the theatrical cut’s climax, it wraps everything up too neatly. Removing all the exorcism noise but keeping some of the emotional payoff would be my preferred version of the film.

Gabby: I agree, I think that speech is powerful and respectful to the character. It would have been great to have an ending that had the balance you suggest Jeremy.

Brett: I kind of thought we didn’t get studio interference like this anymore, but Rouge One and Suicide Squad are two major examples.

Jeremy: Really? I see it as being worse – or at least more public. And it seems more common that directors get taken off their films during post-production. Take Rogue One. Rumors suggest that a third to a half of that movie is reshot footage, possibly made with or without Gareth Edwards’ involvement.

From what I can gather, though, Blatty did all the rewrites and reshoots here.

Brett: I hadn’t seen many stories for a while and then last year we got two major examples. One turned out okay, the other was a disaster.

Jeremy: I’m curious how much of that has to do with the modern concept of reshoots.

Brett: A fair amount I suspect. Marvel seems to have a pretty good reputation for letting things happen.

Jeremy: Just the fact that almost every big movie just pencils that into the budget, like it’s an inevitability that weeks of reshoots will happen. But, yeah, Warner Bros. seems especially bad about panicking over rough cuts and taking insane measures such as we see here. This is a studio that spent $30-$40 million on an Exorcist prequel, then spent as much money again to reshoot the entire film. And if I understand things correctly, Suicide Squad was finished by a company that makes movie trailers. That’s insane.

Brett: And to what end? They always seem to lose. Save for Rogue One, I can’t think of a situation where heavy-handed interference led to a better movie. Wizard of Oz? I guess?

Maybe when it’s a big hit you don’t hear about it.

Gabby: The Wizard of Oz comes from the era of the studio movies. Where studios ran everything and had to be really smart to try and outmaneuver the inevitable. It still ended up as a perfect movie, despite all of that in the background. We are supposed to be in a more free society artistically speaking and democratically by now. But I feel that movies in the American New Wave were less oppressed than some now. Let’s hope for a further rise of the independent movies and a growing group of diverse and liberally minded studio executives to give us more studio films like Moana and Frozen. Films that know what they want to say and use the studio system to further it, by hiring cultural historians and artists for instance, to form something powerful.

Jeremy: And I hope we get a clear understanding of what Rogue One was before the reshoots. I have a feeling it was rougher around the edges but had a more personal vision. It’s a movie I want to cover here. I think it falls under the type of movies we talk about.

And with that, anything to add before we get to our final thoughts?

Brett: I found I liked what this movie wanted to be, but I didn’t love what it actually turned out to be. It’s not bad though, and

Gabby: I think the first half is beautifully made, especially with the slow pacing and the escalation the eerie mood. Even though it has its flaws because of the supernatural elements, I still really like some of those aspects of the movie. Exorcist_III_-_Film_FootageOverall, I really recommend people see this one.

Jeremy: I’m already on record as being a huge fan of this series. It’s probably my favorite horror franchise outside of classic Universal Horror. If the second half was as good as the first, this would make my all-time top ten – a perfect combination of excitement and substance. As far as the movie we got, I still love it. Possibly more so because of its imperfections.

Thanks for reading, everyone. We’ll be back soon with a pick from Brett, Ichi (2008). In the meantime, follow us on Twitter or leave us a comment below. Until then, go watch a movie.


The Indefinsibles: Legend (1985)

Gabby: The harmony of the universe depends upon an eternal balance. Out of the the struggle to maintain this balance, The Indefensibles try to see both the good and bad in Jeremy’s pick…

Jeremy: Legend. I wonder if my GeoCities site of Tom Cruise upskirt photos is still up.

Brett: So, Jeremy, this was your pick. How do I put this? Explain yourself!

Jeremy: Here’s the thing: I don’t like Legend. Never have. But I haven’t seen it in who knows how long. I wanted to give it another chance, because it’s Ridley Scott doing sci-fi/fantasy. Theoretically, I should love this. If I were to do a top ten list of my favorite movies, Blade Runner is near the top. Alien is an honorable mention at the very least.

Legend is one of the first movies I remember where I didn’t like something I wanted to watch. I was bored and confused because I was bored. Besides catching a few minutes here and there on cable, the next time I attempted to watch it was when I scored a free copy of The Director’s Cut on DVD. I barely made it through Lily touching the unicorn. So this is the first time I’ve watched it start-to-finish in 30 years.

Hate’s too strong a word for my reaction this time – but I have little patience for it. And it’s my own pick. I get to be “the Jeremy” of my own pick.

Gabby: I like the fact you’re ‘the Jeremy’ of your own pick!

Brett: I had fun with the movie, but I think you could make one of those kids’ books with a record from the ’80s (“When you hear Tom’s shorts being tiny, turn the page…”) and not miss a single line of dialogue. You could fit the whole story in about two pages of text. And yet… I liked it. I kind of wanted to watch The Director’s Cut right after to compare what was different. Because I, too, haven’t seen it since it first came out on DVD.

I like how it looks, and there is something going on there… but it all feels so hollow. However, I also think Blade Runner is a little hollow, too. Soooo…

Jeremy: Don’t worry – there’s nothing you can say about Blade Runner that my wife hasn’t said before. (“Jesus, you’re watching that again?”) Also, you can’t shock me after you said mean, mean, awful, hurtful things about Fellowship of the Ring on Twitter.

The weird thing is that I have a soft spot for beautiful messes like this – David Lynch’s Dune, Tron: Legacy, Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Heck, I’d even go to bat for Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, despite having problems with it. (You better believe we’re doing Prometheus one day, folks.)

Gabby: Brett, I am so relieved. I thought I wasn’t supposed to think Blade Runner was hollow. I will confess that I agree with you. I wish I could enjoy it on the same level as the majority of film lovers, but I just never have been able to. But I greatly admire it when watching it, but it is a slightly detached admiration unfortunately. I want to be you Jeremy when watching Blade Runner. I hope to see it on the big screen one day, and maybe it will all click together in an eye-opening revelation. I just totally fell in love with another revered classic, 2001, after getting to experience it on the big screen.

Brett: I still love Blade Runner, but I admit the problems with it. So many problems. 

Jeremy: Don’t worry – you’ve been dead to me for some time. Fellowship of the Ring, Brett. Fellowship of the Fuckin’ Ring.

Brett: I know. 

Jeremy: And I know what people find lacking with Blade Runner and Scott’s movies. (And I’d kill to see Blade Runner in a theater.) With all the movies I just mentioned, there’s something to bite into besides the sensory experience – characters, themes, allegory, or just sheer nuttiness. There’s nothing to invest in here. At least, I found nothing to invest in.

Brett: Legend is the culmination of all the complaints about Ridley Scott movies. Weak narrative, poor character development, reliance on images over storytelling. Blade Runner has some character work, Alien has characters and a complete story.

Gabby: Alien does have a complete story and real characters, yes. Two of the reasons I adore Alien. 

Jeremy: Outside of Tim Curry’s performance, there’s little to embrace besides the production and makeup effects. And holy shit, you guys, the makeup effects. We’ll talk more about the makeup soon.

Brett: What I find odd is that this is the movie Tom Cruise made just before Top Gun. I always had it in my head that this was waaay earlier in his career. legend_2_tom-cruise_old-teethThe character of Jack is so paper thin and empty. He must have been excited to work with a big name director, because I can’t imagine the script gave him much to chew on and he was working towards being the biggest star in the world at that time.

Jeremy: If memory serves, my family rented this because the guy from Top Gun was in it. (Note for our younger/non-US readers: I can’t begin to describe how ridiculously huge Top Gun was back in 1986.)

Yeah, emptiness is the best word for this. Compare this to Lynch’s Dune. I don’t care for the characters in Lynch’s adaption, either – but they are fascinating, for better or worse. Probably worse.

Gabby: I agree about the emptiness. The worst thing about that, I think: Scott believes it’s smart and filled with meaning. So then it also comes across a bit pretentious. I remember listening to part of the Blade Runner commentary with the unicorn and being stunned by the level of self-satisfaction he had at its layers of meaning. Just because you use unicorns doesn’t automatically mean you bring the layers of mythical meaning with you. You have to do something with it. If not, it just ends up being weak Christian imagery; like the film adaptation of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.

There is more power in one line, regarding unicorns, in Harry Potter and The Philospher’s Stone than this film. The moment I am thinking of is when Bane tells Harry that Voldermort drank the blood of a unicorn to stay alive, and what that does to someone: “You have slain something pure and defenceless to save yourself, and you will have but a half-life, a cursed life, from the moment the blood touches your lips.” Joanne Rowling knows how to use mythology, bring it to life with a new interpretation and all in the context of a compelling larger story.

Jeremy: Well put. And the cast is trying. There are no bad performances here. I know I’m repeating myself, but there’s just nothing there for them. Even Gump wouldn’t be memorable if the overdubbing legend03didn’t make him sound like he was drinking Scotch every time he was off-screen to get the cigarette taste out of his mouth.

Brett: The comedy feels really, really out of place, too. I kept thinking, “Why are there jokes? He was building atmosphere just to kill it with this stuff?” And the comedy is really goofy. I get he was trying to make some kind of classic storybook movie, but when the rest of the movie is so dark, the gags just yank you right out of what little story there is. 

Jeremy: Yeah, there’s that moment when the not-so-bad henchman stands up to Darkness, Darkness intimidates him, and then he yelps, “Shit!” It’s such a record scratch of a moment. I’m curious if these bits stick out more or less in The Director’s Cut. The need for levity makes more sense with a 113-minute movie. (The theatrical cut comes in just shy of 90 minutes.)

Granted, I have a fondness for navel-gazing movies, so f1d253157ca6abb1696ebfd0550f0974maybe I’m looking for something that was never intended – but is there anything of weight here? It’s just fairy tale 101 combined with the opening riff of the Bible. And we probably shouldn’t dwell on the Adam and Eve comparisons. I’m sorry, Christians, most of you are great – but your origin story is messed up. Please know I don’t want to knock anyone’s beliefs, but I also want to call attention to something that is profoundly misogynistic.

Gabby: It really is deeply misogynistic. We should really celebrate Eve as she gave us knowledge. But of course she was a woman so therefore we must think she is a disgrace. Lily is curious, she doesn’t know the rules and means no harm. If you saw a unicorn, wouldn’t you want to touch it? Talking of Lily; I want to get one thing off my chest, Lily please stop singing. You are not particularly gifted in this area.

Jeremy: Heh. Yeah, I hope it doesn’t need to be said, but I have a problem with a story where the concept of sin or the loss of innocence is solely a woman’s fault. That being said, Lily’s part of the story is better than I remember. She’s not intentionally doing anything blasphemous. Then, she realizes what she’s done and wants to fix it. Lily’s never seduced by Darkness and does play a part – too small a part – in saving the day.

This does get me to one thing I like about this movie: even Jack, our hero, would be lost without the fairy folk. I like that Jack and Lily are fixing this mistake,legend-still-2 but they need help along the way. The problem is I don’t feel the characters – especially Jack and Lily – grow at all. And the murdered unicorn is alive again at the end. This world is presumably static again. So who cares?

Gabby: That is a good example of where something could have been added to make the film richer. There is no growth for the characters really and not much of consequence. Lily being more involved in saving the day would be more interesting. It would give her a chance to not just redeem herself but to prove she can have the adventures she wished for at the beginning. To be an active participant in them. Instead she doesn’t really get a chance to do that.

Jeremy: We should get to why anyone still cares about this movie: Tim Curry and the artists that made Darkness come alive. Because, goddamn…

Brett: Tim Curry is amazingly magnetic. There are times when he is moving around where I kind of can’t tell how they managed it. Those horns alone look like they would neehqdefaultd extra wires to support the weight.

Jeremy: I read up on Rob Bottin’s makeup effects. There was a harness built into the neck and chest prosthetics to support the fiberglass horns. At best, I bet that upgraded that makeup from being excruciating to barely tolerable.

Tim Curry has less screentime than I remembered, but who knows how many days he was in makeup? Like Clue, this was a physically and mentally exhausting performance that took weeks to create. Imagine the concentration and stamina needed for that.

This might just be me, but there are two Tim Currys in my mind. There’s the guy we saw in Clue, who from that point on provided comic relief and quirkiness to a number of so-so mainstream films. (We’ve already covered two of them.) Then, there’s this Tim Curry. The same guy from Rocky Horror. Still quirky, still theatrical – but oozing a playful sexiness.

I mean, a ridiculous level of sexiness. If you were this Tim Curry’s neighbor and realized you were out of sexiness, you could knock on his door and say, “Sorry to bother, but it appears I’ve just run out of sexiness. Could you spare some?” Then, Tim Curry would playfully arch an eyebrow and say, “Oh, of course, dear. Won’t be a mo’. Practically drowning in the stuff here…” That’s how sexy this Tim Curry was.

Brett: So… are you making a sexy cake? Is that the secret ingredient to your monkey bread? You put a little sexy into every bite?

Jeremy: A gentleman baker never tells…

But, er, yeah, I’m not sure you’d call Darkness sexy. Not unless hooves do it for you. But I’m trying to remember another portrayal of the devil – in demonic form – that’s intended to be seductive. That’s what the pleasing shapes are for.

Here’s something that stuck out to me on this viewing: he’s the one character that actually has some layers to him. Darkness is always intimidating, but he knows his weaknesses, his limitations. Sometimes, it’s like he knows he’s on the losing side. And that’s all coming from Curry’s performance. It’s obvious he spent a lot of time in the makeup chair figuring out this character.

This is Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s Monster good. The problem I keep coming back to is Tim Curry put more thought into Darkness than the screenplay ever did. He can only take the character so far.

Brett: The whole movie is super hollow and only exists in our minds because of him. But he’s not in it enough to satisfy.

Gabby: The idea of Curry knows he is on the losing side is a really good point Jeremy. Lily could have figured out how to play against that, to learn how to be Darkness’ antithesis, to help restore the balance around her. It is a shame Curry doesn’t have anything like that to bounce off of as his performance is wonderfully rich.

Brett: To change subjects… I was annoyed at how much they tried to make everything Lily’s fault. Everyone blames her for touching the unicorn. A thing they never told her not to do until she had already done it. “It’s forbidden! How could you?” “You could have mentioned this two minutes ago.”

And I’ve always felt that Ridley Scott would be happier as a silent film maker. Put on the track where it’s just the music and see if the movie doesn’t make more sense.

Jeremy: I get that. I’m still blown away by how charming and effortless The Martian was. That movie’s all about the dialogue and performances.

Brett: Haven’t seen it.

Jeremy: I loved it. Like, a lot.

Brett: I will have to check it out, then. Okay, quick round-robin. Did you guys think that this movie had way more Tim Curry in it before watching it this time? I remember they only interact at the end, but I remember him being in the movie more often. Probably because outside of the set design, Tim Curry is the only really good thing in this movie.

Jeremy: I had the same reaction. I remember this being his movie.

Gabby: This was my first viewing, but the movie came alive when he was on screen. So I really wish he did have way more screen time than he did.

Jeremy: Before we wrap things up, I’d like to focus on the sets for a minute. They’re stunning – no one does it better than the good people at Pinewood Studios. One other thing I like about Legend is Scott’s decision to keep everything practical. The number of optical effects shots is surprisingly low, even in 1985.

I’ve always had a fondness for movies like this, which lean into creating exterior locations on studio sets. They’re not trying to hide it, and it creates a heightened world that feels otherworldly. Visually, Legend holds up incredibly well – because they did almost everything in-camera. I’m not against digital effects, but if you can do it practically, do it practically.

Brett: There is a surprising number of time lapse shots in the movie. And I like all the little practical touches. The shot of the fire place, where the mist is rolling into the fire, it took me a few seconds to work out how they got the mist moving so quickly. It sort of appreciate that moment where I get to get caught up in the “How did they do that?” moment.

We’re on the same page about CGI: it’s fine when it works, but it should be an item of last resort.

Jeremy: And with that, final thoughts?

Brett: All my thoughts are of tiny shorts and Tim Curry being sexy. If only we would have had Tim and the Tiny Shorts on their own, like a buddy cop movie.

Jeremy: I’d watch that movie. But of course I’d watch it. You know the kind of movies we cover here.

It’d be interesting for us to wait a year and give The Director’s Cut a chance. Maybe not do a full article – but see if our feelings change with time and/or the different cut.

Thanks for reading, everyone. We’re only doing two Tim Curry movies for now, since we’re already so far into October. We’ve got another round of scary movies lined up for this year, and we’re each picking a movie from a Master of Horror. Brett’s pick, The Dark Half, will be up soon. In the meantime, follow us on Twitter or leave us a comment below. We’d love to hear from you.

See you soon, knuckleheads. Go watch a movie.


The Indefinsibles: Clue (1985)

Gabby: Mr Boddy requested the pleasure of The Indefinsibles’ company on a dark, stormy night, to discuss over dinner…

Jeremy: Clue. The movie that taught the term “in flagrante delictoto ’80s kids everywhere.

Gabby: We decided to do a round of movies to celebrate the wonder that is Tim Curry. The reasons for picking this one are a bit different. Brett, why did you land on this movie, now a cult classic, to put under the ‘Indefensible’ category?

Brett: This was a financial failure, and for a long time was greatly ignored. However, after all the repeat viewings on cable after all these years, this movie has held up magnificently. This is one of those movies that hits that sublime mixture of absurd and smart. Is this the most perfect movie we’ve discussed here? 

Jeremy: Oh yeah, this is our best movie so far. Probably will be for awhile. And to share some behind the scenes non-drama, I vetoed Clue at first because I thought it was too good for what we do. Watching it again for the first time in years, I see some problems. But this movie is still an amazing achievement – especially because nothing about it should work. It’s based on a freakin’ board game. But most of it works brilliantly.

Brett: Okay, serious question about casting and then w14d19bcaef5e8b8b8698028a5154b865e can talk about how fun the movie is. Is it just me, or does Leslie Ann Warren feel like a last minute replacement? She’s a dramatic actress standing with some of the best comedy talents of a generation. I’m not saying she did a bad job, but it feels like that role was supposed to be someone else’s and she stepped in at the last moment.

* One Google search later… *

Ah yes, it was supposed to be Carrie Fisher. It helps if I look at the oral history I talked about during the Live Tweet. Here is The Oral History of Clue for everyone. That is a really great article about the making of and post game on the movie we’re discussing today. My point is that Carrie Fisher seems like she would’ve fit better. 

Jeremy: Not to me. But that’s because I’ve seen this a million times and can’t imagine changing a frame of it. Eileen Brennan is the weak link for me, but that’s not on her. She’s doing what she can with a shrill character.

Brett: I actually like her. Her character pretends to be a scatterbrain, but in reality she’s hard as steel.

I find little to complain about with the finished product. But I don’t know if it’s for everyone. I think this actually benefited from failing. Since it sold to cable so cheap, it got played a lot. So we watched it a lot, and over time we realized how great it was. This would have been completely forgotten if not for that. I think that this was a very special cast. No one was really huge, but they were all solid. And Tim Curry is a goddamned national treasure.

What impresses me about the house is that it is basically one big set and they are able to use it without making a spectacle of it. They don’t go for sweeping, single, steady cam shots, where they show off the whole place. But it’s a complete house and it shows in little ways.

Jeremy: Before we go further, I should get my problems with the movie out of the way. Like you, Brett, I want to get this out of the way so we can get to the good stuff.

Keep in mind, folks, I’ve loved this film since I first saw it in theaters way back when. (We got the Mrs. Peacock ending at my theater.) When I was a kid, all of my extended family got together around the holidays and went to a movie. Usually, whatever PG comedy was out. In 1985, that was Clue. I was six at the time. It’s hard to remember now, but I’m guessing the movie played like a classy-looking Looney Tunes cartoon for me. My brother and I then wore out a previously used VHS copy from our local video store over the next few years - which our parents bought because they were sick of us asking to rent it.

And then there was the joy of revisiting it as a young adult and getting all the things that went over my head. 1331280429_clue_1985_hdtvrip_avi_002305839A few months ago, when we covered Radioland Murders, my opening joke involved telling everyone to just watch Clue again. Watching this again, I see they have more in common than I thought at the time: they both feature seasoned pros trying to make some broad, weak gags work by sheer force of will.

It’s only a minor problem here – especially compared to Radioland. The movie starts awkwardly and gets stronger as it goes. In the first act, there are more comedic whiffs than I remembered. The big difference between this and Radioland is focus. Everyone’s on the same page here, both on and off camera. The director, Jonathan Lynn, had a clear vision of what this movie should be and captured that vision. And you’re right, Brett, these are comedy legends. Even when the comedy struggles, it’s still charming and atmospheric.

Gabby: I actually came to this movie a bit late. I saw it for the first time maybe three or four years back. So I don’t have the same associations with it as you have. But every now and then I just think, oh I am really in the mood for Clue! I put it on and find it a great experience every time. I agree with both of you, this is the best movie we have done so far. I love the set too. It does feel complete and that makes it so atmospheric. It helps the movie really come to life.

I agree with it failing being in its favour in the long run. I know it has become a cult movie and that is often paired with flopping at the box office. A cinema I have mentioned a lot that I am a lifetime member of has screenings of it every now and then.

The cast is great. Madeline Kahn is so fantastic in everything. mrs-whiteI adore her. We must talk about the ‘flames’ speech at some point. That was the only bit of the film allowed to be improvised I believe.

Jeremy: That’s probably the most quoted line from the movie – and for good reason. I noticed Kahn had less material than the other characters. Was that just me?

Gabby: I am glad you say that about Madeline Kahn having less. I feel incredibly biased as I think she is just an incredible comedian and love her so much. She should have been given more I feel. Maybe one of my few quibbles.

Brett: Are we going to discuss how every solution works? I did a chart once, to make sure the people would be/could be in place to commit the murders.

Jeremy: It’s insanely well-plotted, especially when you consider the source material. Granted,  the board game Clue is based on classic mystery tropes, but still… this shouldn’t work.

Tim Curry’s summation of events is masterful – one of a kind. Think about how many days/weeks that was shot over. And his performance and energy levels are consistent throughout. This is the first movie I saw Tim Curry in, and I’m a fan for life thanks to this performance.

Do you still have that chart, Brett? If not, I’m sure I can find one online. I’ve never scrutinized the endings, but I’m happy to hear people have and found that everything fits together. Of the three endings (Mrs. Peacock, Yvette & Miss Scarlet, everyone killing a single person), is there an ending you particularly like? Dislike?

Brett: The Mrs. Peacock ending never worked for me. Her slaughtering everyone else’s witnesses feels off. vlcsnap-2011-03-24-21h07m53s150She seems too selfish. Scarlett works because she wants to become the new blackmailer.

If they all did it, then Green gets away with it. Everyone else’s secret will be exposed, but Green gets to kill his blackmailer and is congratulated for it.

Jeremy: Well, he’s an undercover agent, pretending to be gay in that ending. It is weird that Mr. Green shoots Tim Curry (the real Mr. Boddy in this ending) when there’s an army of FBI agents outside. Lynn was going for symmetry, I guess.

Brett: No, I mean that Green really is gay. His comment about his wife is the sort of covering he’s had to do his whole life. His secret is in tact and everyone still believes he’s straight.

Jeremy: I never read it that way before. That actually improves Michael McKean’s final joke. I wonder why that never occurred to me before? I guess because he says he’s a plant. The other characters would know his secret, but who would take them seriously? Speaking of Mr. Green’s homosexuality, how does Michael McKean’s character play for everyone now? Grading on a curve, it’s a pretty tasteful depiction of a homosexual man for a mainstream comedy in 1985.

Brett: I think it’s better than most manage. I also have an affection for any time a gay/bi character doesn’t die in a movie. It’s absurd the amount it happens and it’s basically Joel Cairo and Mr. Green until the mid-’90s.

Jeremy: Back to what you said, the Miss Scarlett ending is the sweet spot. Yvette, the maid, being a part of the murders – and being murdered herself – is a nice twist. More importantly, Tim Curry and Leslie Ann Warren counting the bullets left in the revolver is one of the film’s best bits.

I believe they say Mrs. Peacock is working for a “foreign power.” But you’re right, it’s hard to imagine her killing six people. I want to talk about the third ending, where everyone kills someone. I’m curious if any of our readers had the same experience I did with Clue over the years.

Because the movie was so fun and the actors so likeable, it never clicked with me as a kid that these people are awful. Like, in my developing brain, they were only accused of these things. I never got that Mrs. White actually killed her husbands, or that Christoper Lloyd (Doc Brown, for God’s sake) is a sexual predator.

I remember being kinda bummed as a kid with the title card “Here’s what really happened…” I took that title card literally. I didn’t like everyone being a murderer or Tim Curry being Mr. Boddy. It never stopped me from enjoying the film – just a little “Aw, man…” in the back of my adolescent mind.

Like I said when we were watching the movie, there was a point when I revisited the film in my teens and was like, “Hey, most of these people are awful, with or without the murder.” There’s a lot of reasons why the film tanked at the box office. But I’m curious how many people – especially older viewers – bounced off these characters in 1985.

It’s an interesting coincidence that Christopher Lloyd was in two movies in ’85 that let some air out of the notion that the ’50s was this idyllic, patriotic time here in America.

Gabby: I actually love the fact that most of these people are awful and yet the film doesn’t seem mean-spirited at all. That is a tremendous feat, one that is hardly ever pulled of to such a fun degree. The ’50s aspect is interesting, it definitely is a big element when you think about it. Some characters are, on the surface, ideal American citizens: a colonel, a doctor, etc. But dig a little deeper and you find that they have worked the system or the system has turned them rotten. There is a dark element in this film, but you can never take away the fact it is so ridiculously silly and entertaining. I can’t express enough how much I admire that. The orchestration involved is really impressive.

Actually that family association is interesting Jeremy, given what I just said about the ’50s and the picture of the idealistic families. Have you got a Mrs White hidden among those relatives at all?

Jeremy: Heh – not that I know. Most of my family would be the people with clear definitions of “American” and “un-Amercian”, if you know what I mean. Let’s just say I’m the sociopolitical black sheep of my family.

Brett: Did I mention how Clue is like a cinnamon & apple scented candle or Pumpkin Spice Latte for me? That it’s one of those movies that just says “Yup, it’s fall now, even if it’s more than 90 degrees today and always will be.”

There are movies like this, The Crow, Legend, Interview with the Vampire and some others. Films that aren’t horror, that I still associate with a Fall/Halloween aspect. I like Scary Movie Month as much as anyone, but I also appreciate a fun fall movie without having to dip into terror.

Jeremy: Yeah, I associate it with Thanksgiving and Christmas. Family. Which is weird, given the subject matter. This movie, along with Sidney Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express, are experiences I’ve been chasing since I was a kid. clueMurder mysteries with phenomenal casts, that were big productions, somehow dripping with atmosphere while being fun.

My affection for it is a bit diminished now. It’s like an old best friend you grew apart from. But if I were to make a list of the ten movies that had the biggest influence on me, this is on it. No doubt.

 Anything else we want to add?

Brett: I still enjoy this movie when I see it, but it makes me sad because I feel like we never appreciated Tim Curry back when he was doing his best work. I often feel like we didn’t catch up to the vibe he was laying down until years and years later.

Jeremy: Thanks for reading, everyone. We’re doing my Tim Curry pick, Legend, next. Look for us talking about that movie soon, then we’ll dedicate the rest of October to scary movies. In the meantime, follow us on Twitter or leave us a comment. We’d love to hear from you.

See you soon, knuckleheads. Go watch a scary movie.


The Indefinsibles: House II: The Second Story (1987)

GabbyThe Indefinsibles share a wacky dream after watching and discussing Jeremy’s pick…

Jeremy: House II: The Second Story. The second best movie to prominently feature a crystal skull.

We should start with me saying why I picked this movie. I didn’t have a burning desire to cover House II, but I thought it’d be fun to revisit a movie I watched a bunch as a kid, which I haven’t seen since the ’80s. Also, when we were planning this “Summer of Sequels” series, I wanted one of our choices to be outside of the mainstream. This definitely fits the bill: a modest budget, late August release in the summer of ’87 – aimed squarely at pre-teens who probably didn’t see the first House because of its “R” rating.

Also, to my surprise, this turned out to be a big favorite of yours, Brett. How did this play for you now?

Brett: This is one of those movies that was on during a Saturday afternoon during my youth. I had no idea what it was, but we watched it and it was amazing. I thought I had maybe missed the earlier adventures of our heroes (Jesse and Charlie, two of the most ’80s best friends ever) but as it turned out I could follow it without seeing the first movie. As it turned out, this was the greatest achievement of Western Culture, possibly of all human endeavor. Okay, hubris aside, there are some issues with this movie. The role of women is non-existent, and the body builder (playing a pre-historic man) might as well be called Cotton Eye Joe.

Because where does he come from and where does he go? Also, if not for Charlie, Jesse would have been married a long time ago. For those who haven’t seen the movie, Jesse is the Natural Mask Protagonist and Jesse is the Han Solo screwball. They are friends, and they have adventures. 

This almost feels like it was supposed to be a six-part BBC series that got cut down into a 90-minute movie. Threads appear and then leave without bearing fruit.look-itc2b4s-a-prehistoric-bird The joke I used with Jeremy during the livetweet was that I couldn’t remember something that had happened two minutes earlier because you can’t go back, you can only move forward in House II.

On the other hand, I sort of like that the threads aren’t neatly tied up at the end. Jesse and Charlie don’t win the girls back. Gramps never becomes young again. Rochelle… I have a whole idea about Rochelle sneaking into one of the alternate worlds and becoming a goddess of the prehistoric world.

Jeremy: Who was Rochelle, again? The ex that shows up about halfway through the movie?

Brett: I think she was an ex… she was clearly someone Jesse had dealings with in the past. Her role here is to be a refugee from a French Farce and to make you feel kind of icky about how the movie treats women. A very messy script.

Jeremy: Yeah, the script’s a friggin’ mess. The main bad guy – Gramps’ old partner from the Old West – appears in the prologue to kill Jesse’s parents, then doesn’t appear again until the movie remembers him in the last 10-15 minutes. Jesse and Charlie just have a few adventures in the past and manage to alienate their girlfriends in the present. I wonder if they were filming without a script… or improvising because they didn’t have the resources to film what was on the page.

Looking up the cast on IMDB, I was surprised to see that the actor playing Charlie, Jonathan Stark, has been a regular sitcom writer since the early ’80s. He’s worked on some great shows (Cheers) and some not-so-great shows (According to Jim). It feels like he punched up his own material. His jokes are broad and sitcom-y, but they work well enough.

I want to go back to the female characters for a moment, which are… disappointing.  Jesse’s ex pops up out of nowhere, and she’s just there to write off all the female roles except the Mesoamerican virgin who can’t speak English. Ick, indeed.

All the relationships go nowhere. It’s a shame. There’s probably a better version of this movie where Jessie shares the adventure with his girlfriend and best friend, who don’t get along. Having to choose between a serious relationship and your best friend is a well-worn trope, but it’s relatable. Certainly better than a lot of narrative dead ends.

And I’m not sure what the filmmakers wanted out of Jesse and Gramps’ relationship. Obviously, they have a connection – they’re family. It feels like they intended Jesse to be this path of least resistance guy who’s not really happy. And Gramps is there to make him man up and have an adventure.houseii5

There are some fun scenes with Gramps. Like you said when we were watching the movie, Brett, there’s something sweet about Jesse and Charlie being in such awe of Gramps. The film’s biggest problem for me is that Jesse is a complete blank. And it’s not Arye Gross’s fault. He was the right guy for the part… at least the way I imagine it in my head.

But I’m trying, God knows why, to turn this movie into a story where everything fits together and has meaning – when I should just enjoy how nutty it is. I mean, where else are you going to get a zombie cowboy feeding beer in a baby bottle to a cuddly two-foot-long worm with the face of Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog?

Brett: About the relationships, there is something in here I really like. There are a handful of times where the movie surprises you. Take one example: they lose the skull (one of the 27 times THAT happens) and Jesse goes and wakes up a hungover Charlie. Now, we know Charlie is the screwball and should take the news that the skull is missing to be humorous and explain he’ll find the skull after nine or ten more hours of sleep. Instead, upon hearing the skull is missing he leaps up and the two of them rush off. Every time I thought, “Oh, we’re about to have a tedious scene play out like it does in every other movie” they don’t do that. A little subverting of my expectations, that’s all I ask.

Jeremy: Gabby, how did this play for you?

Gabby: I thought it was entertaining. I agree there are touching moments with Gramps and the women should have had more to do. I did really enjoy the handyman’s random appearance and participation in the movie as well.

Jeremy: John Ratzenberger’s scene is the highlight of the movie. It’s the closest the film gets to being on the level of something like Ghostbusters or Gremlins. Ratzenberger’s basically doing Cliff Clavin… if Cliff’s day job involved home repair and adventures in alternate dimensions.

Let’s wrap things up. What does everyone think about the ending, where Jesse and Charlie are exiled to the past?

Gabby: Because now he is a manly man and can face the old west?

Jeremy: Something like that. Is that the vibe you guys got?

Brett: I don’t know if I thought about it that deeply. By the time the movie ends, that was the only magical door left to go through. He’s trapped at that point.

Jeremy: Yeah – and I totally get I’m over-analyzing this movie. Probably just so we have something to talk about. Plus, I’m trying to figure out why I loved this as a kid. The answer’s actually simple: it’s a haunted house movie pitched at kids, with lots of jokes and monsters. It’s fun in places, but a Joe Dante joint this is not. With that in mind, closing thoughts? If any?

Gabby: I think it has some suprisngly sweet moments with the three main characters. It is not great but fun and silly. You really don’t know what’s coming next and it shows an adventure I wouldn’t mind going on myself.

Brett: This is the junk food of my entertainment diet. Empty calories, no fiber, just a bag of candy.MSDHOUS EC030 This is filed under “I just don’t care” for me. I wouldn’t want to watch it every day, or even every year, but when I do watch it, I have a boatload of fun. And that’s what these dumb movies should be about. Every once in a while, just let a stupid, silly movie in that avoids cliche and logic just wash over you. That’s House II. 

Jeremy: Thanks for reading, everyone. This wraps up our block of films on summer sequels, just in time for Labor Day. We’ll be back soon and dedicating a month to Tim Curry movies. In the meantime, follow us on Twitter or leave us a comment. We’d love to hear from you.

See you soon, knuckleheads. Go watch a movie.


The Indefinsibles: Night at the Museum 2 (2009)

Gabby: Welcome to the extended reign of The Indefinsibles. We traveled to the darkest depths of ancient history, and then came back to discuss…

Jeremy: Night at the Museum 2: Something Something Smithsonian. A film as educational as a Texas public education textbook and half as funny.

This is our second installment in our “Summer of Sequels” series. Why did you pick this movie, Gabby?

Gabby: Mainly I think it was a good film to demonstrate a type of box office yard stick. It might not be great, but there are some fun things about it. At least you didn’t totally waste the money you spent on the cinema ticket. There is also a discussion to be had as to the potential of the movie and how the final product fell short.

Brett: This isn’t the worst – the performances are fine and the movie is in focus. The script follows the three-act structure because professional screenwriters worked on it. The effects and lighting are fine. It’s just, as a whole, not that good. It is less than the sum of its parts. We could sell Stiller for what the whole movie is worth. It’s kind of dull, the story is kind of stupid. Coming in without seeing the first one, it took me nearly 15 minutes to learn the rules. And it just didn’t make much of an impact either way. And that’s actually the main problem.

It’s not a good-bad movie, because I couldn’t make fun of the bad performances or cheesy production values. It wasn’t a movie I liked despite its flaws. And that makes it a worse movie than say… Omaha: The Movie or Amazing Spider-Man 2. Those are fascinating and amazing messes. One is a first time director that didn’t know quite what he was doing and the other is just such a train wreck.

My point is that what makes a bad-bad movie is that it’s boring. That’s the one big sin a piece of entertainment can commit. The worst thing about this movie is that I barely noticed it. If we didn’t plan on discussing it afterwards, I probably would have never thought about it again an hour after it was done.

Jeremy: For the most part, we’re on the same page. Since I’ve never seen the first Night at the Museum, I tried to imagine it’s 2009 and I’m only watching this at the theater because I’m a good friend/boyfriend/older brother. Would I be confused and miserable throughout? The answer’s “no.” With this many talented, funny people sharing the screen, some good material is invariably going to seep through. This is a weird middle ground you rarely get in movies: nobody’s phoning it in, but no one’s working that hard, either.

Like you said, Brett, this is a total product. The writers, Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant, are two funny guys who’ve made a second career out of writing big studio comedies designed to be studio note and test screening proof. They have no illusions about what they’re writing. And if that puts food on their table so they can create material they care about, I’m OK with that.

So, yeah, no strong feelings about this movie – except I wish it was funnier and cared about history or science or anything besides pacifying the masses. It actually does make me want to see the original. I can imagine a sweeter – if no less mercenary – version of this story about an average Joe with big dreams getting a kick in the pants after spending a night with these historical figures.

So let’s start with this: how weird is Ben Stiller’s arc in this movie?night-at-the-museum-battle-of-the-smithsonian-oscar-the-grouch-darth-vader-review I’m assuming his dream of becoming a successful inventor came true at the end of the first movie. The sequel bends over backwards to get him back in a security guard outfit, so he can realize he was happier as a night watchman.

Brett: And that was such an odd plot point, because it really wasn’t earned or defined in any way. They just mention he’s not happy, but there isn’t a sign of it. He doesn’t seem unhappy. He doesn’t seem unfulfilled. And you know, fuck this movie for trotting out the “if you’re successful you must really be miserable” trope. I really hate that one.

Jeremy: Yeah, he’s consumed in work and obliviously being kind of a dick. Not a full dick, mind you. Just a bit of a dick. Not even a half-shaft. It’s probably not worth digging too deeply into this film’s messages, but I also dislike movies that say you can either be successful or you can be happy.

It’s like Hollywood’s afraid we won’t root for a character who is both. I‘m OK with the setup that he’s too focused on his job, but can’t he end up running his business and supporting the museum? He doesn’t need to sell his business to be a patron. If he needs an excuse to visit his magic friends there, he should start selling his glow in the dark flashlights in the gift shop.

Gabby: The Ben Stiller character arc is a big flaw in this film. I rewatched the first one before I rewatched this to prepare a bit. And the first one ends with him as a night guard. He is a man with ideas for an invention or two, but never really followed anything through. This arc works in that film. The first film also tells him the importance of learning his history. In the second one, he doesn’t even seem to care about meeting Amelia Earhart or learning about the things she is famous for.

The other problem I have with this film is it brings back characters natmuseum23from the first movie and leaves some of them in a big crate for the majority of the film. A new character, Colonel Custer, joins them, who is the one given the majority of the material inside the crate. This makes it almost nonsensical to have those characters back at all.

The talent in this movie maybe should have been let free a bit more. As the plot is total nonsense anyway. I did love that Robin Williams bit about ‘New York Teddy.’

Jeremy: Yeah, it amazed me that most of the supporting cast wasn’t written out entirely, based on how little they have to do here. I do like Bill Hader’s Custer. I’m not sure how much Hader improvised, because his bits are among the strongest in the movie. They had a funny idea and fully committed to the bit. That’s rare in this film.

Brett: I thought Amy Adams also committed to the part, I just thought that part was terrible. Hank Azaria got the broad outlines of the script and then just riffed on it. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn his part was mostly made up on set.

Robin Williams did a pretty good job, with what he was given to do. Ben Stiller was… well… he was there. I have never loved him, but I have never felt he wasn’t doing the best he can. This is what makes the movie so bad in my mind, because we are just so “Meh” about it.

There aren’t a lot of “What the fuck?” moments. There’s only a few complaints about how their history is badly off, or how they picked most of Amy’s lines by grabbing a slang dictionary and picking terms at random. 

Gabby: I love Amy Adams in this. She is kind of why I liked this. john-carter-mars11I want to see the movie she was going for, with her part being better written. It is Amelia Earhart for goodness sake, the people writing this had history books, documentaries and the internet after all.

I reimagined this movie at some point because I feel something is there, but a better framework was needed in order to support that character and give her the movie she deserves. Amy Adams is so earnest, adorable and enthusiastic I just can’t help love her playing a fantastic and iconic historical figure. Ben Stiller is fine. Hank Azaria is such a life raft for the messy structure by just having fun. He delivers his lines with flair; ‘You’re evil, you’re asthmatic…’

Jeremy: I’m glad you brought up the bit with the bust of Teddy Roosevelt, Gabby. It’s the quintessential scene of this movie for me. It’s a great idea with a lot of potential, and nowhere near as funny as it should be. They’re coasting on the premise. It’s one of many scenes where I was thinking, “You had the premise, you had the structure. Why didn’t you keep working on the jokes?

Brett: I wonder if they thought the movie was working when they were on set. This was probably one of those movies where everyone had a lot of fun filming. Everyone is a pro, everyone did their job, and there was likely a lot of laughs during every take. 

I am reminded of a story Terry Gilliam told on the commentary for Monty Python and Holy Grail. He said that during the editing, Terry Jones would pick takes that weren’t quite as funny as the ones Gilliam picked. He said Jones was always wrapped up in the moment where they were on set and that one take made them laugh the hardest while filming. But Gilliam always said that those weren’t the best takes and that Jones was remembering the fun they had on set, rather then looking at what’s in the frame on the screen.

Since I heard that story, I have often found times where I have been watching a subpar movie and thought, “You went for the take that made you laugh harder while filming, rather than the one that works in the movie.”

This movie is imagesan example. I would bet that Hank Azaria was making everyone on set piss themselves with laughter. I would bet that they had to stuff socks in their mouths not to ruin the bits with Custer. I would even bet they applauded every time Amy Adams rattled off one of those chains of slang-filled dialogue. You can sort of see the places where this production was a hell of a lot of fun. 

The problem is, very little of that fun translates to the screen.

Jeremy: I’d never heard that story about Holy Grail before. A good piece of wisdom for all of us endeavoring to be funny. Comedy’s a discipline that requires objectivity, like any other art form.

Back to Amy Adams for a moment: I always enjoy seeing her in movies, but her Amelia Earhart didn’t do a lot for me. She’s doing what she can – no one working today does plucky better than her. I get where they were going with her character: live in the moment, have an adventure. The problem is Ben Stiller’s already doing that. He just needs to put down his phone and have dinner with his kid now and again.

I don’t think it would fit the rules, but I first thought Amy Adams would keep flying at the end so she could keep outracing the dawn, instead of flying back to the Smithsonian. And how lame is the ending, with Ben Stiller bumping into her playing another character?wicked4

Brett: They literally stole the ending of the remake of Bedazzled.

Gabby: Or One Touch of Venus. Which has a similar but much better executed version of that ending. I love One Touch of Venus. These movies should have more of what it had.

Jeremy: Never seen either of those movies, but it’s a well-used trope. I wouldn’t mind it in the slightest if it made sense within the narrative.

And I didn’t have the same problems with Ben Stiller that you did, Brett. When it comes to finding the right role that suits his talents, he reminds me of Steve Martin. They both often play overly straight-laced schmoes or wild, crazy guys. Their best roles are in a narrow middle ground where they get to be a little of both. This part’s almost in that middle ground, but he rarely gets a good line. On the other hand, he’s a good sport and shares the screen well with everyone who gets to cut loose, such as Hank Azaria, who’s my favorite part of the movie.

Granted, anyone doing a Boris Karloff impression that good is going to get my full attention. (And ’90s Simpsons is practically a religion for me.) Azaria’s live-action roles are often underappreciated because he is so great at doing those voices. I’m glad there’s something more to the character besides the voice. I dig the idea that he wants to conquer the world… but wants someone else to do the conquering while he sits in his throne room. Again, I’m thinking, “Oh! It’s so close. You’re almost there, gang. Just keeping working the material and stick the landing.”

And Jesus, how unnecessary are Ivan the Terrible, Napoleon, and Al Capone? Christopher Guest gets a moment or two to do his thing as Ivan the Terrible, which is always welcome. The Napoleon gags are cheap and obvious. And did they even bother writing a joke for Al Capone?

It doesn’t matter. They’re taking time away from Azaria and the returning cast. I guess it could’ve worked if Azaria recruited them one at a time, night-at-the-museum-battle-of-the-smithsonian-oscar-the-grouch-darth-vader-reviewand they each had their own setpiece where they attempted to capture Stiller and Adams. That would make the Darth Vader/Oscar the Grouch scene funnier – like Azaria’s running out of bad guys and desperately exploring his remaining options. Despite being obvious fan service, that scene is funny – thanks to Azaria’s delivery. And I’m not just saying that as a huge Star Wars fan.

One last thought about the performances from me. This was, I think, the first time I’ve watched a Robin Williams performance since his death. That hit me a lot harder than expected.

Brett: His opening performance particularly, when he first gives Ben Stiller the fatherly advice and is cut off before he finishes was just sort of… I’m really glad nothing important happened for a minute or two after that because I needed a moment to myself.

Jeremy: My feelings about Robin Williams grew more complicated over the last decade, but he’ll always be one of my comedy heroes.

Gabby: I had a similiar reaction to that fatherly advice bit also Brett. When talking about my emotions around Robin Williams’ death, virginia-water_2602492bI can’t say it better than I did here with my friend, and sometimes co writer, Josh Pearlman. He was a brilliant talent and I was very overcome with emotion when he died. The first movie too was a bit hard for me, but it gave him much more to do. The first movie was much better, from this point of view, as he was given more room to just be an entertaining version of Teddy Roosevelt. It doesn’t ring true to me when Teddy in the second movie tells Ben Stiller what he really was going to say. It definitley felt like it was leading to a sincere touching moment. Maybe that was a studio note to make the ending more peppy.

When it comes to studio entertainment, this one really hits middle of the road for me.

Jeremy: This is the kind of calculated studio product I typically hate. To my surprise, I didn’t hate this. It’s factory-built for a family movie night or to have on in the background during Christmas Day – something everyone can’t really complain about and can enjoy to some degree. And that’s how I’d describe my experience with it: I enjoyed it to a small degree.

Gabby: That is it Jeremy. That is what I feel. I wanted to choose this film as I felt there was hate for something that is kind of harmless and a bit of fun. I have had a bit of trouble talking about it because of having no strong feelings about it. That might be my biggest problem with it. The fact I see a better movie to be made here. But what came out was fine. A background movie. 

Brett: I disagree to an extent. I found it irritating, and after a while the stereotypes starting blasting away my ability to enjoy it. We didn’t get into the stereotypes much. But I did make the tweet that was basically “This movie is a cavalcade of outdated stereotypes. “

Gabby: I think it is more paint by numbers filmmaking. Th1W49OFMRWhere stereotypes are used instead of characters merely to support the flimsy plot. They are reliant on star power, charisma and delivery to develop the film further. When a blockbuster doesn’t have those charms, you can get something like The Twilight Saga: Eclipse, where everything is flat and dull, and you really want the movie to end. However, as long as you get people involved with some good will and sense of fun then the film can end up with something dynamic at least, that offers a performance as enjoyable as Hank Azaria’s for instance.

Jeremy: Yeah, there’s no agenda here. Third grade school plays cover more historical ground than this movie. But, yeah, there’s a better version of this story that delves into history, which uses how messy, horrible, and wonderful it is to fuel the conflict, instead of chasing after a magical tablet.

Brett: I… just don’t care about this movie. I can’t work up the enthusiasm to hate it or hurl vitriol at it. I didn’t pay a lot to see it though – and I will have the moment where Steve Coogan rode in on a squirrel emblazoned on my soul for all time. That’s something I had never seen before, so it’s like Mad Max: Fury Road in that respect. HA! Didn’t see me linking those two movies, did you?

Jeremy: And with that, thanks for reading, everyone. We’ll finish our “Summer of Sequels” series soon with my pick, House II: The Second Story. In the meantime, follow us on Twitter. We livetweet every movie we cover in advance of discussing them. Also, we’d love to chat about these movies – or movies and pop culture, in general – in our comments section or on social media.

See you soon, knuckleheads. Go watch a movie.

The Indefinsibles: Mission: Impossible II (2000)

Gabby: The Indefinsibles chose to accept Brett’s mission and go undercover for this not so secret operation…

Brett: Mission: Impossible II. I would like to preemptively disavow!

Jeremy: Welcome back, everyone. This is the first movie in our latest block of films, which we’re calling “Summer of Sequels.” We’re each picking a little-loved summer sequel we can’t help but enjoy.

And this might end up as the shortest conversation we’ve ever had. I assume we’re all in agreement about this one: the first hour and a half of M:I II exists solely to get us to that last half-hour of John Woo mayhem, which is still astonishing and ridiculous to this day.

Brett: Yeah, likely. There are cool things before that, but it’s mostly loaded on the back end. You have 3/4 of the runtime to wait until the moment when John Woo remembers he’s John Fucking Woo.

Gabby: Have either of you seen all the Mission movies and John Woo’s movies? It wouldn’t surprise me, Brett, if you have.

Jeremy: Me neither. I’m guessing you were, like me, obsessed with Hong Kong action movies from somewhere around the American release of Rumble in the Bronx to the Matrix sequels.

Brett: It took me a little longer. I got into them about a year before Rush Hour came out. Between ’96 and ’97. I first got into Jackie Chan via a super cheap copy of Fearless Hyena. From there I got into some of his other movies.

I will point out for those not in the know, I am the resident guy who spent the early 2000s buying DVDs from Asian sources and owned a region free player for that reason. I have seen things… glorious things. I should really catch you guys up on some of these movies.

I didn’t even give John Woo much of a look for a long time. I remember seeing some of Face/Off and thinking it was so absurd. I switched it off that first time, actually. And then one day A Better Tomorrow II was on cable and I was simply entranced by the madness of it all. The end shootout switched something on for me. And then I saw Hard Boiled and was all, “Oh… so that’s what all the fuss was about.” Needless to say, we saw M:I II on opening night.

And I’ve seen all the Mission: Impossible movies.

Jeremy: Same here for the latter. MI: II is the last one I saw in theaters. I always enjoy these movies, but I can wait and watch them at home, since they’re mostly technical exercises. Granted, they’re really enjoyable technical exercises…

Gabby: I haven’t seen the first one in absolutely ages. I saw it on video once or twice perhaps in 1999. I have seen Ghost Protocol a few times since it came out and I really love that one. Very, very fun!

Jeremy: And back to your question, Gabby. I’ve watched most of Woo’s ’80s and ’90s output. His name alone wasn’t enough to get me to watch Windtalkers, and I haven’t seen a movie of his since. I still think a lot of his films are great, but Hong Kong action movies don’t thrill me like they used to.

Brett: This movie and Windtalkers both have boring, action-less first and second acts. It takes even longer to get to the action in Windtalkers. So I kind of wonder if, when making MI: II, he sighed, slumped his shoulders, and said, “Well, they want the two guns and the crazy action. Better give it to them.”

Jeremy: I wouldn’t say he’s going through the motions here. There’s too much energy and care in the action scenes for that. H3360_8462e was trying to stretch himself with a love story. From everything I’ve read about John Woo, he loves movies from the ’30s and ’40s. He seemed enthused by the notion of making a classic romantic thriller with his sensibility. He wanted Thandie Newton’s character to be something more than a Bond girl for Ethan Hunt.

Despite all the fancy camera moves and awful Hans Zimmer score, he’s striving for this story to have weight, meaning. Unfortunately, it doesn’t. Not at all. It’s impossible to care for these characters. Most people who bought this on DVD did so to fast-forward to the good parts, which is Tom Cruise doing ridiculously amazing stunts.

Brett: The DVD had a lot of features about the stunts. Cruise did a lot of them himself.

Gabby: Is it Dr. Nekhorvich who called him Dmitri?

Brett: Dimitri was also the name used at the beginning of the first Mission: Impossible movie. Not 100% sure what the connection is, if there is one. 

Gabby: There are several versions of this name but they all originate from the Goddess Demeter, of Ancient Greek mythology. She was the goddess of harvest and high rank in watching over the cycle of life and death. That is interesting when putmission.impossible.ii.2000.720p.brrip.x264-yify.mp4 together with the name of the disease, Chimera, which was said to be immortal in mythology.

Bellerophon was the one that killed the Chimera, with the help of Pegasus. He flew over the Chimera and pointed a spear in its neck. When it breathed fire, it melted the lead and it was suffocated.

They call the cure Bellerophon. I always enjoy a few Greek mythology references in movies. He was the son of Medusa and Poseidon (born when she died, with Pegasus also being created at the same time). Which is interesting when paired with how many face masks are in this movie. Maybe this one is going to be insulting Brett, but it isn’t meant to be: was this a new technique or something? This came out in the same year as Charlie’s Angels, which also used face masks in the same way.

Brett: The masks are just a thing for M:I. They were a staple on the TV show.

Jeremy: This is a nitpicky screenwriting criticism, but there were times they used “Bellerophon” where I was like, ” ‘Cure.’ You would’ve just said ‘the cure’ there.”

IMDB trivia alleges that the rough cut of this film was three-and-a-half hours, and a lot of post-production trickery was employed to get MI: II down to a sensible running time and still be coherent-ish. That’s probably why Chimera, Bellerophon, and other character names and incidentals keep getting repeated to an unusual degree.

Word has it that legendary editor Stuart Baird did uncredited wShinzon_and_his_Viceroyork on this and the first Tomb Raider to help save those movies. His deal with Paramount for doing so was a chance to direct another film, which ended up being Star Trek: Nemesis. So, you know, goddamn these two  films and their production problems.

Gabby: Going back to what you said Brett about John Woo having to be John Woo, I feel this happens with so many directors. It’s hard for them to escape certain expectations. This was also a similar problem with a film we discussed recently, The Black Cauldron. Some audiences saw the Disney label above it and were frustrated they didn’t get the fairy tale they had come to expect. The audiences came to expect Woo to go nuts, because it is friggin’ fun. But it also puts him in a box, constraining what he does with his films.

Judging how the films I see of his go, I much prefer the guns ablazing nuts Woo. But I do enjoy the character development and exchanges in The Killer. It’s not as well developed here. He certainly had enough time to do that here. He tried to develop the two leads as well as the villains. But it all comes out a bit flat and dull. At least there was an effort there though.

Am I wrong in thinking that it is out of character, in this specific movie, for Ethan Hunt to go batshit, two gun, crazy? He seems much more the long game guy than the shootout guy in this one.

Jeremy: Yeah, the main bad guy, played by Dougray Scott, says that Ethan Hunt favors misdirection over confrontation. But that doesn’t mean Hunt can’t do confrontation and look freakin’ sweet while doing it in slow-motion.dougray scream

Speaking of Dougray Scott, what is up with all the misogynistic lines he has to spew in this movie? Someone mentioned on Twitter that the misogyny was probably coming from the writer, Robert Towne (most famous for writing Chinatown). I don’t know enough about him to make an educated guess. True, only the bad guys and Anthony Hopkins – who plays Tom Cruise’s boss as someone being a bastard in order to do his job – say such nonsense. But Jesus, it’s unnecessary.

Gabby: I wanted to comment briefly on two quotes in the film. ‘You know women, mate. Like monkeys, they are – won’t let go of one branch until they’ve got hold of the next.’ And then this one: ‘You’re not going to shoot me Sean, not this bitch’ I am not exactly sure what to say to this. I just wanted to air the fact I found these two quotes problematic.

Talking of shooting bitches, do either of you know what the practical to green screen shots were like, and how many Tom Cruise did himself in this one? 

Jeremy: Very little green screen – but a fair amount of wire removal for the safety rig Cruise wore during the climbing stunts. Is this the first Tom Cruise movie with him getting away with crazy stunts because he was also the producer?

Brett: Was there an action scene/style that worked better for you guys than others?

Gabby: The hand-to-hand combat seems to suit him much better, along with the rock climbing and flips through the air. Much more Cruise’s style.

Jeremy: The gunplay and hand-to-hand stuff works for me, but it’s the stunts that really make this movie eye-eye-mission-impossible-2special. From everything I can gather, the knife to Tom Cruise’s eye stunt was completely real. They blocked the scene, measured the distance between the knife and his eye to a quarter-inch, and tethered Dougray Scott to a cable that would stop him from making contact with Cruise by said distance. Un-fucking-believable. Say what you will about Tom Cruise, but he is Jackie Chan-levels of committed to wowing you.

Brett: I found the shootout in the lab really, really didn’t work. But him shooting the gun at the motorcycle behind him, aiming in the mirror, that worked for me. It’s part of the big end setpiece, where it’s just stunts and stunts and stunts and then that happens and I’m like “Sure, that, too. Why not?” The car bit at the beginning doesn’t work, but the hand-to-hand fight on the beach kind of does.

Gabby: Moving away from the action scenes, what do you both think of the performances?

Brett: Tom Cruise is dragging this film towards success. What’s his name, the blonde side kick to Dougray Scott, he seems to have an idea what he’s doing. Thandie Newton seems to be in an entirely different movie. Dougray Scott seems to be under directed. Like he was told to look sad or confused or angry, but wasn’t given a lot of direction beyond that. There are so many shots of him just staring into camera.

Gabby: Can you elaborate on what movie Thandie Newton is in? I think I might agree with that.

Brett: I think she thought she was in a lighthearted heist movie. Like this was sold to her as a mid-’60s throwback. 

Gabby: Yeah, that is it.

Brett: There is a playfulness to her performance that is at odds with much of the rest of the movie. Right up until the lab, she’s being the Nora to Tom Cruise’s Nick. Had this movie had a light and fun tone, it would have been accepted, stupid as it it. But John Woo wanted tragic sadness in Sean and Ethan’s relationship. If you listen to the commentary, Woo mentions the sadness in Scott’s eyes so many times. There’s supposed to be this tragic, operatic sadness to everything. 

Gabby: Do you think the sadness works at all?

Brett: No. Categorically, no.

Gabby: I agree.

Jeremy: I’m on the same page about the performances. Only thing to add is that, if the rough cut was indeed an hour and a half longer, everyone’s acting choices probably made more sense before the puzzle was put together with only about half the pieces.

And these films kept going back to the same well with the rogue IMF agent being the bad guy. None of the movies really commit to the idea. You’re supposed to look at Jon Voight, Dougray Scott, or Billy Crudup and think about how easy it would be for Ethan Hunt to go over to the dark side. The problem is it’s Tom Cruise – he’s going to be damn near perfect and save the day.

That’s why everyone loves Ghost Protocol so much. It loses a lot of the melodrama and focuses on giving trickier and trickier situations for Ethan Hunt and his team to get out of.

Do you think John Woo is capable of a light touch, Brett? I always got the impression that Hard Target’s nuttiness came from Sam Raimi. Do a double feature of Hard Target and Army of Darkness. They’re cut from the same bolt of cloth.

Gabby: I love Hard Target!

Jeremy: I’ve only seen it a handful of times, which is odd. Every time I watch it, I think, “This is amazing. Why don’t I own this?”

Brett: Once a Thief, the movie Woo made just before Hard Boiled, actually has a light touch. Not a perfect movie in any regard, but it has a sense of fun about it. It’s got sort of a love story, it’s got some high wire tricks, it’s got some action. It’s pretty good, just not great. It’s kind of silly, but silly in a way it means, rather than, say, Hard Target.

Jeremy: A Better Tomorrow II is also a comedy, right?

Brett: A Better Tomorrow II is hilarious, but not for the reasons intended. It’s the most sequel-y sequel ever made.

Jeremy: Been so long since I’ve seen it. I remember the first one being one of those movies that shouldn’t have a sequel but the money was too good to resist. They had to give Chow Yun-Fat’s character a twin brother, since he died in the first movie.

Brett: Yup! And it includes a rant where Chow Yun Fat demands a mafioso apologize to a bowl of rice. It’s that sort of transcendent movie we look for when we talk about good-bad movies. And it is the ultimate sequel.

Jeremy: And did Chow Yun-Fat’s long lost twin brother and company ever find Curly’s Gold?

Brett: They blew it up. They blew up a lot of stuff. So many explosions. Such action. Wow!

Jeremy: Speaking of classic movies like City Slickers 2, one thing I’m surprised hasn’t come up yet – especially from you, Gabby – is that MI: II is an unapologetic homage of Hitchcock’s Notorious.

Gabby: I knew I had something I wanted to bring up! I like the fact that an action movie sequel finds inspiration in a classic black & white Hitchcock movie.3921

Jeremy: It works well enough. The problem is MI: II doesn’t have time to be just that story. Notorious has enough breathing room for Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman to fall in love before she has to go seduce the bad guy. I do like the twist that Thandie Newton poisons herself in this version.

Gabby: I enjoyed that too. The main problem when comparing the two is that Woo really misses the tone of the original film. The sadness of Ingrid Bergman is just beautifully played and worked into the film. Whereas in this it seems just a bit of a mesh. Notorious is such a tightly woven plot, even the character building all feels like it is going somewhere. So not only do we feel for her, and Cary, but we get the emotional story of their past and what her reputation is versus what is really happening, combined with an incredibly suspenseful, beautifully filmed movie. The emotional drama in MI: II is a miss. It doesn’t get why it works so well in Notorious.

But MI: II is its own thing and I appreciate that. This is definitely an entertaining film in the last section. The rest drifts too much. And like I say, it certainly tries and I like a lot of the action seems grounded. Even the beginning rock climbing is fun and adds a great backdrop to the opening of the film. And it prepares you on some level to the batshit awesome of the last section. I think it has more to offer than that, for reasons that we have pointed out earlier, but if you are still not convinced, watch it if only for that I would say.

I think that is about all I have to say about that – other than Cary Grant and Tom Cruise are very different actors and I don’t understand how to compare them. Cary Grant was one of the most charming people ever to walk the Earth. I think Tom Cruise is more of a fun version of John Wayne perhaps, than anything.

Brett: I think Tom wanted to be Cary. And there are shots of Chow Yun Fat where I have seen him from the corner of my eye and thought Cary Grant was suddenly there. So I think Tom Cruise thought John Woo could turn him into a guy like that. The problem is, that wasn’t in the director, it was in the actor.

Brett: One last question before we get to our final thoughts, why can’t the IMF keep executives? Tom Cruise has a different boss in every movie. Granted, they kill the Secretary in Ghost Protocol, but still…

Gabby: The series should have a consistent M or Moneypenny.

Jeremy: I like the revolving door of talent, both in front of and behind the camera. I’m of two minds about where the series has gone since MI: III, when it fell under Bad Robot’s stewardship.

The Bad Robot movies are more consistent, but the flipside is they have a more predictable formula. MI: III is the last movie which keeps to the original mission statement for the franchise: give the reins to a different idiosyncratic filmmaker each time, provide them will all the talent and resources they could ever ask for, and tell them to turn their brand up to 11.

Don’t get me wrong, you can clearly hear Brad Bird and Christopher McQuarrie’s directorial voices in Ghost Protocol and Rogue Nation, but I don’t think you get their passions and idiosyncrasies like you do with the directors of the first three movies.

And here’s my final thoughts, which I’ll keep brief, since this did not turn out to be our shortest conversation. I haven’t seen MI: II in over a decade. Watching this again was like discovering an old mix-tape from high school and giving it a listen – fun, nostalgic, and a little embarrassing. This was never my favorite John Woo movie, but I used to watch this and think a genius was at work. I still think Woo is a genius, but no one’s on the same page here. It’s still worth a watch if you’re a John Woo or Mission: Impossible completest, but that’s about it. Otherwise, catch the last 45 minutes on cable and you’re good.

We’ll be back soon with Gabby’s pick, Night of the Museum 2. In the meantime, follow us on Twitter or leave a comment below. Thanks for reading, everyone.


The Indefinsibles: The Whisperer in Darkness (2011)

Gabby: We switch on our brain boxes and open a doorway between worlds to find Jeremy’s pick…

Jeremy: The Whisperer in Darkness. H.P. Lovecraft’s working title: My Ovaltine with Akelely.

I’m glad we were able to watch this, Gabby. Our one rule for the movies we pick is that they have to be accessible to UK and US readers. Since this was a super low-budget film, I wasn’t sure if it made its way to the UK.

Gabby: I managed to rent it off iTunes!

Jeremy: Wait – it’s available digitally in the UK? That’s some bullshit, right there. I would kill to have a legit digital copy.

Gabby: That is weird, you should be able to get it! Give this to Jeremy digitally, powers that be.

Jeremy: Before we go further, let me say why I picked this movie to defend. This is the second independent film made by the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society (HPLHS) based on Lovecraft’s stories. Their first film, The Call of Cthulhu, was released in 2005. From everything I can gather, it was a minor cult hit on DVD. I know horror fans really embraced it.

And it’s how I discovered Lovecraft. I was a Lovecraft virgin when I bought a copy of Call of Cthulhu on a whim from a used video shop. I was immediately taken by the cover, to say nothing of the hook the HPLHS devised for filming this supposedly unfilmable story: make it a black & white silent movie, as if it was produced in the year the story was published, 1926. Thanks to that movie, I became a huge Lovecraft nerd. Because, you know, I didn’t have enough geeky obsessions already…

Adapting Lovecraft stories to match the films of the era they were written in – which the HPLHS coined as Mythoscope – was such an inspired idea. First off, Cthulhu was a micro-budget production made by fans, so it hid a lot visual shortcuts they had to make. It also allowed them to make a movie that ran under 60 minutes, as was the style of the time. Most importantly, a silent movie provided an opportunity to adapt Lovecraft faithfully while circumventing his purple prose and the near absence of dialogue in his stories.

Working on and off over the next six years, the HPLHS were finally able to make a follow-up with The Whisperer in Darkness. The production was certainly more ambitious. Since this story was published in 1931, they were now making a “talkie”, heavily influenced by the Universal Horror movies of the period.

I wish I could say Whisperer was met with as much enthusiasm as their first film. It didn’t get bad reviews – but the initial reception was fairly lukewarm. All the reviews I read hit upon the same thing: it feels less and less like a classic horror movie as it goes on, which was their aim with the Mythoscope hook. During the last half-hour of new material devised to give the story a third act, it feels more like an ’80s James Cameron movie than ’30s horror.

I, too, was put off by the final act during my first viewing. The more times I revisit the movie, the less issues I have with it. If Lovecraft fans were disappointed the first time, I recommend they go back and give it another chance. It’s not entirely the movie I would’ve made – but guess what? It’s not my movie. I love what the HPLHS does and want more people to see their films. So that’s why we’re talking about one of ‘em today.

Brett: So the third act was okay until the airplane came along. We didn’t need the airplane chase or the close-ups on the Mi-go, showing off just how computer animated these monsters were. The very last shot made up for it, though. Odd how I could basically tell where Lovecraft’s story ended without Jeremy telling me, though that helped. Lovecraft always wrote as if he were saying, “Yeah, but their imagination won’t have the budget for that.” Lovercraft never showed things as much as I wanted. You never seem to get a full sense of exactly what the hell was going on with him.

We should make it clear where the story ends and where the movie ends. In the story, our hero, Alfred Wilmarth, is shown that the Mi-go can put brains in metal containers so humans can journey, in spirit, across the cosmos with them. He speaks with a human brain who tries to sell him on all the wonders the Mi-go can show us. Wilmarth discovers soon after that the man, Henry Akeley, who discovered the Mi-go and their followers wasn’t a man at all. It was a Mi-go in a face mask and human prosthetics. Wilmarth runs away back to Arkham to never do anything interesting ever again. Whisperer-1

And in the movie, Wilmarth tries to stop the Mi-go from opening a portal between their world and ours. He’s hurt in a plane crash while doing so and his brain is removed. We then see him as the new sales pitch man, using the exact same words as the last guy, explaining why it would be so cool if we let the Mi-go put our brains into jars.

The tone shifted once the original story ended. I liked the movie overall. There were only a few things that jumped out, but none of them ever spoiled the scene. I found the guy who was just a brain in a jar – who was giving the sales pitch to Wilmarth – pretty goofy, but then it turned out he was supposed to be.

Jeremy: I get where they were going with the third act. Lovecraft was all about the horror of discovery, of digging too deep and learning too much. You can’t end a movie with your protagonist running off into the night after realizing he had a not-so-pleasant chat with a monster in a human suit.

Whisperer is one of my favorite Lovecraft stories, though I’m curious why they chose it for a second film. While the source material reveals a lot about the Cthulhu Mythos, it’s actually a story told on a much smaller scale than his other stories from the period. The Shadow over Innsmouth, The Dunwich Horror, At Mountains of Madness – they all feature something resembling a third act, with some sort of action or chase scene.

My guess is they were realistic enough to acknowledge that Whisperer was the best story to adapt with the resources available. (They’ve made audio dramas for most of the big stories by this point. If you’ve been following us at all, you know how much I dig that.) I wish someone would hand these guys a few million dollars and leave them alone to do their thing. If you’ve seen either one of their movies, you know they can stretch a budget like you would not believe.

Gabby: I am impressed by the movie’s use of its budget.drew-barrymore-as-dylan-sanders They managed to create a terrific looking movie. I say that as a big old horror movie fan (as well as old movies in general). They’re playing right into my wheelhouse with their shot framing, lighting and edits. I too hope they get a really good budget to do another Lovecraft story.

Brett: It’s fine, the story is there in its complete form, they just added a bit. I actually read an interview where the director gave a good justification for the third act. He said that Lovecraft’s stories basically end at what a movie would call act two, that he never knew how to resolve a story, but we’re making a movie here and we have to close it with a third act.

Basically, the same thing you were saying about the horror of his work being in the discovery.

Jeremy: I’m glad we’re starting with the third act, so I can get my quibbles out of the way and move on.

My big problem is the additions made to give Wilmarth some emotional complexity. In theory, I should love that. I care more about character than plot. It’s just these changes don’t add up to much. To start with, they make him more incredulous of the creatures’ existence. Dramatically, that makes sense for a movie, but they seem to be setting up this idea that his faith in science – at least so far as he understands it – is a weakness. If that’s supposed to set up something, it’s a setup with no payoff.

Then there’s giving Wilmarth a dead family to mourn and the introduction of Hannah, a wid5character created for the film. The filmmakers are going for a Ripley/Newt dynamic between the two characters. Don’t get me wrong – the Ripley/Newt bit is a great bit. One of my favorites. The characters don’t have time to form a connection. They don’t meet until the third act and only share a few minutes of screen time.

It occurred to me on this viewing that they set up this relationship as a bit of narrative sleight of hand. Of course they’re going to be fine! They’re gonna become a family!


Brett: I kind of liked the ending. I would have been okay with the plane just crashing, though.

Gabby: I really enjoyed the first ending with the plane crash too. I have no idea why they felt the need to add another ending. I thought when it faded to blackout, ‘That ending was neat! I like being unsure what happens ne… oh.. wait… what the fuck is happening? What… what just happened?’

Brett: I kind of thought that would be the end too. However they did need to clear up the fact that he’s narrating the movie. By the way, add this to the short list of movies where the voice over doesn’t detract from the movie. I don’t say it helps, but it doesn’t hurt.

Jeremy: It’s a good example of how to do narration. It’s creating a mood, not covering for gaps in the story.

Gabby: And I agree about painting him as a skeptic. It seemed designed for him to use that book of folklore from the first act to save them, which he became so obsessed with and yet believed as pure fiction. So making a complete turn around in terms of beliefs might be a predictable character arc, but one that seem to be hinted at. But instead, that idea literally gets shot to pieces.

Jeremy: In both versions of the story, the Mi-go and their human cultists steal back all the evidence of their existence from Wilmarth. To me, a “We don’t have to kill you. No one’s gonna believe you…” ending is way more terrifying. Even if the HPLHS had stayed closer to the original ending, they still had to come up with a way for Wilmarth to have a dramatic escape. In a movie, he has to accomplish something, even if it’s a minor victory, like the way he now discovers the Mi-go’s lair and disrupts their ceremony.

And while Wilmarth’s dramatic arc doesn’t entirely work for me, I was surprised on this viewing by how unnerving the real Akeley’s final moments are. He’s summoned back into existence only to discover he’s a brain in a jar and his son’s most likely dead. That’s rough, man. I also appreciate the addition of seeing Akeley’s body hanging in the monsters’ lair like a piece of meat. Getting to see the bullshit the Mi-go are shoveling actually enhances the story for me.

So much of the movie works because of the actors playing Wilmarth and Akeley,images (1) I’m impressed by both of them. Matt Foyer is, like, the perfect Lovecraft protagonist. Barry Lynch gets to be both creepy and sympathetic in dual roles, and he’s great in both of them. The rest of the cast ranges from solid to a little amateurish. But a lot of the cast are amateurs, as I understand it – so it doesn’t bother me in the slightest. This is a movie made out of love, so I’m on board with everyone’s enthusiasm.

Brett: I had no complaints about the actors. Even when they come off as a bit hammy or amateurish, that’s got a lot to do with the style of the time they’re recreating. The sales pitch brain guy is a bit hammy, but his part should be hammy. He should be one of those old stage actors who never really got the idea of acting on film and does everything broad and over expressive.

Jeremy: The first head in the jar is the director, Sean Branney. And the actor playing Charles Fort, the character Wilmarth debates at the beginning of the film, is Andrew Leman, who co-wrote and produced the film with Branney.

Brett: The effects for the guy’s head when he talks to Wilmarth kind of jumped out as being way too modern. It was too clean. Kind of jarring. 

Jeremy: I know they wanted to use practical effects whenever possible, like monster suits and puppetry for the Mi-go. Based on their time and resources, it wasn’t feasible. CGI had to do for the most part.

I really like the design of the Mi-go, especially their mechanical wings and various do-dads. The brain’s sales pitch being such a sales pitch didn’t bother me, though I see where you’re coming from. I know it bugged you during the live-tweet. It reminds me of Wilmarth’s increased skepticism at the beginning: they’re getting it to play dramatically, even if it’s playing to the cheap seats.

And to go back a minute, I can’t imagine ending on just the plane crash. I love that Wilmarth delivers the same exact sales pitch as the previous brain. It leaves you wondering if the brains are reprogrammed somehow or if their experiences traveling to other worlds are too wondrous to deny. Personally, I lean to the former idea.

Brett: It’s not the sales pitch that bothered me. It’s that it looks so much like it was done on a laptop with After Effects and doesn’t match everything we’ve seen until then.

Jeremy: Ah, I get it, yeah. I’m trying to imagine what a ’30s version of that would look like. In the story, it’s a voice coming out of a speaker. That wouldn’t work on film.

Brett: Less clean, more matte lines probably. A little more like Universal’s The Invisible Man. And the head works way better on screen. The fact that the movie was in black and white helped mask that they’re using some cheap computer effects.

Jeremy: Speaking of The Invisible Man, there are some great moments where they capture that classic Universal Horror magic. It’s never scary, but it’s atmospheric as hell all the way through, which is exactly what I want out of classic horror.

Gabby: It is very effective at that at times. One example, for me, was the lead up to the presentation of the first brain in a jar and it transforming into a man’s head.

Jeremy: My favorite scene is the group of learned men assembling in an office and pouring over the evidence Akeley’s son brought to the university.Dscn4251 It gets the closest to evoking Universal Horror. For an exposition scene, it really moves and holds your attention. The actors do a great job of vacillating back and forth between reason and fear – especially Matt Foyer.

Brett: Yeah, the office scene is nearly perfect.

Jeremy: My favorite part of horror movies is the setup, of the possibility of things that go bump in the night. So I eat exposition scenes like this up. Take Stephen King’s short story, 1408: half of it is just one man telling another man about the terrible history of a haunted hotel room. Delicious.

For that reason, the entire first act works for me and works in a big bad way. My only real quibble with the second act is the same one I had with the story: there’s no room to question Noyes (the cult leader) and faux-Akeley’s intentions. Wilmarth seems particularly dense about the whole thing… though maybe that’s what Lovecraft whisperer-in-darknesswas aiming for.

On the other hand, I like that we never hear the story faux-Akeley tells Wilmarth. That tale is basically Cthulhu Mythos porn in the novella – interesting only to die-hard fans. The notion of creatures and horrors too terrible to explain is a big part of Lovecraft – and I like how they preserve that sense of mystery while simultaneously dealing with the proverbial Tom Bombadil in the room.

Gabby: I noticed the vibe they were going for from the opening lohpl1_thumb1go. I admire that choice and think it adds a lot to the movie. I agree that the office scene is really well delivered, especially in capturing that ’30s Universal Horror vibe. I do love classic Universal Horror, so this made me grin a lot.

Jeremy: It’s cool to hear you guys enjoyed this movie, because I was curious if it would work for anyone who wasn’t a Lovecraft fan. Keep in mind where I’m coming from with this. It’s hard to be objective about something that feels made just for you.

Gabby: Have any of you seen Son of Frankenstein?

Jeremy: I have. I’m nuts for Universal Horror and have all those DVD collections with the films for each monster made in the ’30s and ’40s.

Gabby: When the head was raving about how great it is to be chosen, it reminded me of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. All the propaganda that could easily connect to communist propaganda and the Red Scare. But then again the first World War was advertised as a chance to fight for your country and gain glory…

Anyway, I ask as Son of Frankenstein has some really beautiful looking shots. At times, the way they lit this was similar. I really love that old-fashioned craft of cinematography, seen with the use of shadow across the characters’ faces. The encounter with the monsters really went for the King Kong vibe.

Jeremy: That’s a great observation, Gabby. I’ve always john-carter-mars11thought the plane chase was a little out of time, but you’re right: it’s right there in King Kong.

Gabby: Anyone else get a ’50s sci-fi vibe with the brains in jars? I can tell Lovecraft was ahead of his time. What did people think when this story was first published? I found that an odd transition though.

Also, I was getting more of The Village of the Damned vibe off that young girl…

Brett: Frequently, at that time anyway, books were 10-20 years ahead of the movies. Most of the film noir from the ’40s and ’50s was based on stories and books published in the ’20s and ’30s. Same with sci-fi. Interestingly, Lovecraft was one of the best kept secrets for a long, long time. He influenced lots of writers, but his work didn’t really get much popular exposure until the last 20 years or so.

Jeremy: Speaking of which, Gabby, you mentioned not having any experience with Lovecraft before this. Does this pique your interest at all for reading his stories?

Gabby: It does for sure. As we were speaking about this movie I have wanted to read the original story. So I have been reading it on and off throughout today. I think I will be delving into his works more this year.

Jeremy: I’m happy to hear that. Just keep in mind that he’s kind of a racist monster who created incredible monsters.

Brett: There are shockingly few movies based on his works. So many other writers were influenced by him though. He’s like the Mötorhead of horror.

Jeremy: I would amend that to there are very few faithful adaptions, that keep the spirit of the stories and set them in their proper time period. Even the more notable movies baring his name – The Dunwich Horror, Re-Animator – are loosely based on his stories at best. I’m not a purist by any means – but you lose a lot by taking these stories out of a time where technology was on the cusp of making our world feel smaller and less unknown.

Gabby: In a similar way that War of the Worlds was published in the age of the Industrial Revolution and Darwin’s Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection. Where people started questioning and reshaping their religious beliefs.

Jeremy: And to your question about how the story was initially received. Lovecraft’s imagination was ahead of its time, his values were not. From what I’ve read, this story and At the Mountains of Madness were difficult sells for the pulps, since they explicitly say the monsters aren’t monsters and are, in fact, aliens. These stories were supposedly too sci-fi for the weird fiction magazines and too weird fiction for the sci-fi rags.

Wow, I just realized that this is our longest discussion yet. We better wrap this up. Final thoughts, everyone?

Gabby: My last thoughts: this film is definitely worth a look. They put a lot of effort in and it shows. Though not a big fan of the last few minutes of the film, the rest of it has an atmosphere and visual design that adds a lot. On top of that, I enjoyed the performances and the fun way they approached the story. It’s bonkers. In a good way.

Brett: I don’t dislike the movie. I think it’s pretty good, but, yeah, it would have been that much better if they kept the tone consistent.

Jeremy: What more can I say? The mixture of old and new sensibilities doesn’t entirely mesh, but goddamn, do I love this movie. There’s more passion and enthusiasm on display here than in most of the movies we covered. May the Dark Gods of Old bless the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society.

And this ends our round of movies based on pulp/weird fiction. It’s been a blast. We’ll back soon, talking about three sequels to blockbuster summer movies. In the meantime, follow us on Twitter or leave us a comment below.

Thanks for reading, everyone.

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The Indefinsibles: John Carter (2012)

Gabby: We are summoned to Mars by my choice…

Jeremy: John Carter. Note to self: make sure safe search is on when looking for images of Dejah Thoris for the article you’re writing.Deja29covIncenRafael

Gabby: So what was your first viewing of this? Any previous relationship with the property?

Brett: This was the first time I watched it.

Jeremy: This was my second viewing. Like most everybody else, I didn’t see John Carter in theaters. I wanted to – but never got around to it. I rented it as soon as it came out on video. Before this retrospective on pulp/weird fiction adaptations, I tried reading Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars and could never get into it. During my daily commute recently, I listened to a free audiobook reading so I’d have an understanding of what it took to adapt the source material.

I was – and still am – pleasantly surprised by this movie, even if they didn’t completely crack the story. Everyone involved in this production – from director Andrew Stanton to a desperately floundering marketing department – wasted too much energy on convincing us that there was something here for everyone, instead of just telling the damn story.

Gabby: I wish I could have supported this when it came out. But I only saw one poster for it and I live in London and that was when it stopped showing in cinemas. Now, either I may have been living under a rock at the time, or that says a lot at how terrible that marketing was. Though I knew I wanted to see it. I had seen a special on it on TV. Like a brief kind of promotion almost and I wanted to support it.

Jeremy: I wish I’d supported it in theaters, as well. This movie reminds me of a lot of first installments in comic book franchises – not great, but potentially on the way to greatness. The big problem for me is that I always felt an arm’s length away from the character of John Carter. I never cared for any of these characters or the world they were fighting for, and that’s what I want more than anything from a movie like this.

Brett: I was super bored. In fact, I have to be the Jeremy for this movie. John Carter [Woola about to attack]I really didn’t enjoy myself here. I can try to think of some positive things, but I spent most the movie wishing it was shorter and had less storylines and characters. I was just bored really.

Jeremy: It could be leaner and meaner, yeah. Let me start at the end of the movie and work my way back: I wasn’t fully engaged on this viewing, then found myself grinning like an idiot during the last scene. I was suddenly – finally – charmed by Taylor Kitsch as he told his nephew, a fictionalized Edgar Rice Burroughs, to take chances and live his life. I was overjoyed that Carter was going back to Mars, despite feeling little joy before that moment. The movie suddenly came alive.

One of the reasons Andrew Stanton jumped from animation to live-action was because he was “spontaneity-starved.” I find precious little spontaneity in John Carter. The budget got too big and Disney panicked about having another flop with Mars in the title. And it shows in almost every scene. It’s calculated to death.

Gabby: I also really like the segment with John and his nephew getting him back to Mars. I got invested in his quest to get back there and felt very happy when he succeeded. 

Brett: Okay, so here’s my problem: the book A Princess of Mars is thinner than a DVD box. That’s not a joke, I checked. We happen to have all the books hanging around the house, even though I have never read them. This should have been a fast-paced, peppy, pulpy, action-packed thrill ride. Instead, they try to build a franchise and ended up smothering the adventure and excitement under the weight of all the extra story. 

Mark Strong’s villain and storyline should not have been in this movie. It turned an Indiana Jones-style romp into a Lord of the Rings snorefest. It wasn’t a badly made movie, although the CGI became visual noise after a while. It became ponderous and dull. 

I liked the way the movie started. I thought the exploration of Mars and John’s discovery of his  super-strength on Mars was fun. But every time they cut away from him, the movie just died. I didn’t care something_wicked_this_way_comes_by_sharksden-d6w8ntcabout the extended storyline they were building for Dejah Thoris, or much of anything that wasn’t John doing Mars stuff. I just wanted to see him doing his thing, that’s when the movie worked for me.

Gabby: ‘John doing Mars stuff’ should have been the tag line for this movie.

Brett: Since I got bored, I lost track of the 200 plot lines they were throwing at the wall hoping something would stick. I was just sitting there saying, “Have the adventurer do adventure stuff. I don’t care if Dejah Thoris gets the ring to Mount Doom. I don’t care if Mark Strong ever takes over Mars or not. Just tell me the number to the phone in my car and get on with it!” They were in such a hurry to advertise the next movie, they forgot you still have to enjoy this movie. I am going to just say the problem was pacing and not letting the world-building happen naturally.

I was reminded of how I felt watching The Wolverine. I was bored; it wasn’t working for me. I knew it should work for me, and yet there I was bored and not caring. I never really connected with the story and I ended up standing on the outside not being able to understand what all the fuss was about.

Gabby: I enjoy the exploration of his powers when he first gets to Mars. And I like the Lord of the Rings comparisons here! That is very on point. There is too much melodrama going on in the background that takes away from the adventure and fun of discovering Mars.

Jeremy: Oddly enough, like The Black Cauldron, this movie pulls material from the first two Barsoom books and puts them in a blender. Granted, there’s almost thirty years and countless regime changes at Disney separating the two movies, but it’s interesting to see they made the same mistake twice.

Brett: What is it with Disney trying to cram two books worth of story into one movie?

Jeremy: The Therns, led by Mark Strong’s character, johncarter036don’t show up until the second book. They’re one addition too many for this movie. That being said, I like the idea of the Therns, a clandestine organization profiting off the wars they engineer. But it feels like a safe choice – namely because they tie it together with Carter being a Confederate soldier. Stanton’s trying to say there’s often a moral divide between the people who start wars and those fighting them. In theory, that’s a good message, but it feels a bit half-hearted here. Another calculation.

Gabby: The cynic in me also believes history has proved to us that is false. One example would be the ‘following orders’ example from the Nazis. We know that was not always the case.

Brett:  The hundreds of story lines are a big reason why this movie never engaged me. I did kind of connect with John Carter though. I would watch that pretty motherfucker running around, being half naked and heroic all day.

Jeremy: Sometimes a hero being heroic is enough. Granted I’ll take a conflicted Peter Parker over a vanilla Clark Kent any day. But I still like a Clark Kent.

Brett: I like certain Clark Kents. It depends whose playing/writing him. I have this horrible feeling that if John Carter was more Marvel and less Tron: Legacy, it would have gone better.

Jeremy: All three movies we picked this round felt like they needed to give their protagonists tortured backstories so modern audiences would connect with them. In fact, my pick, The Whisperer in Darkness, also gives the main character a dead wife and kid, with the same mixed results.

Brett: Spoilers! Does he not have a family in A Princess of Mars? I haven’t read it. *

*This only makes the second book/story that the movie was based on that Brett hasn’t read  – ed.

Jeremy: Yep. Anything that contributes to Carter’s moodiness or ambivalence to the conflicts around him was invented for this movie.

I’m not that familiar with Taylor Kitsch. He’s at his best here in the brief moments where he gets to be a drew-barrymore-as-dylan-sanderscharming rogue. It’s not a bad performance – but I get the impression he wanted to have more fun than he was allowed to have, which doubles down on the moodiness. I’m not against Stanton humanizing the character, but this is a pretty dour start for a movie franchise based on a - and I don’t mean this to sound derogatory – juvenile adventure series. A character that can soar through the air shouldn’t be weighed down by this much emotional baggage.

Brett: Juvenile seems like an appropriate word.

Jeremy: It’s green men and red boobs wankery, yeah. Not that there’s anything wrong with that…

Gabby: It is a shame with it being boring to you Brett. I do agree there is too much thrown in here. As Jeremy pointed out, a second film might have got it to a much higher level. Mark Strong’s plotline is definitely the big weakness here. It is sad that the movie was such a bomb and it probably will never get a chance to develop that potential.  

The addition of his tortured past and him being a Confederate soldier is unnecessary. I do like his quest trying to get back to Mars and it making him rich. And the fact that he only enjoys those riches so far as it allows him to continue. The charming
downloadrogue mode is much better for Kitsch, but also makes for a more likeable character. The moodiness is just unpleasant at times. I like the section where he and the Princess are on Mars’ answer to camels… space camels. There is this playful back and forth between them, much preferable over him grumping in a corner somewhere thinking about a medallion.

To go back on something Jeremy said earlier, I think the part where the boring and calculated studio notes show through is with the villains. Sab Than (Dominic West’s character) could have been the villain on his own, without being connected to faux space philosphers. The Therns felt like they were there to unnecessarily tie the script together.

Brett: In Heavy Metal, there is a story where a geek is taken to another world and decides to stay because in that world he’s a big strong guy with women dripping off him. No tragic backstory, no dead family. The only explanation you get is “On Earth, I was no one, but here, I’m Den!” Hey, you guys wanna watch Heavy Metal?

Jeremy: Ummm… Er…

In the screenwriters’ defense, A Princess of Mars is very episodic. If you take out the Therns entirely from this movie and save the Zodangas for a third-act complication, the major plot beats are faithful to the novel. The book hints that Carter isn’t even human, that he was originally from Mars. He’s seemingly ageless (most of the Martian races live for a 1,000 years), can’t remember his youth, and learns to travel between the two worlds by thought alone.

He’s also a straight-up fuckin’ psychopath in the book.

Without the Therns, the whole story comes down to what Carter’s willing to do to save Dejah Thoris (a strong, well-written damsel in distress – but a damsel in distress, nonetheless) from the Tharks and then the Zodangas. There’s a lot of flowery prose about Carter’s dogged belief in duty, loyalty, and love – but there’s so many moments in the book where he stumbles into a situation, does his best to size up who the bad guys are, and proceeds to murder the shit out of said bad guys. He needlessly murders as many people/aliens as possible. It’s like he’s trying to beat his fuckin’ high score or something.

Don’t get me wrong, Burroughs wrote a hell of a story – but the novel often crossed whatever limits I have for enjoying power fantasies. Even if the final film is too calculated, I get why Stanton looked at the source material and decided a white interloper, a Confederate soldier no less, reshaping a world in his own image wasn’t going to play. 

Brett: In the books, the Martians have red skin and nobody wears any clothes. There aren’t even loin cloths, everyone just runs around starkers. They sometimes wear leather belts around their chests and have capes of colored material. Strangely, Disney didn’t go for the nudity part…

Jeremy: I’m surprised there wasn’t a trashy ’70s European adaptation with tons of nudity. I would happily watch that on Hulu and then happily delete my watch history in order to avoid my wife’s frowny face.

Back to this movie: what did everyone think about the john-carter-mars11performances?

Brett: I found the woman playing Dejah to be sort of boring, but I couldn’t tell if that was the actress or the writing or the directing or what.

Gabby: There is a missing element in the performances. Is there anyone that really stands out to either of you? Thinking about it now, they are all okay, but not really more than that.

Jeremy: I mentioned earlier feeling an arm’s length away from the characters. To me, it seems like the actors felt the same way about their roles. The one exception is Willem Dafoe as Tars Tarkas, who gets to go big and have fun. Oh, here’s one moment that does seem spontaneous: Tars Tarkas slapping Carter in the back of the head for leading their army in the wrong direction. That joke is so unexpected and welcome at that point in the movie.

Like Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins is fine as Dejah Thoris. They did a good job of modernizing the character and giving her things to do that were handled by other male characters in the book. I never doubted for a moment that her character was John Carter’s equal. A lot of that comes from Collin’s performance.

Also, I had a real “Pullman/Paxton” with James Purefoy and Dominic West. Thank God the two were color-coded with their blue and red capes. I wouldn’t have been able to tell them apart.

And with that, final thoughts, everyone?

Gabby: To me there are joys in the film. I think the movie looks its best, funnily, when Carter is on Earth and the plot involves his nephew. There is something involving and lived in about it. And when not swarmed by CGI battling aliens, I find Mars quite fun. The landscape, when Carter is trying out his jumping skills for instance, are impressive.

The movie could do with a bit more of the adventurous and good humored spirit of that and the space camel scene.wicked4 There is a touch of dark humour when Carter reappears, as his nephew is trying to open the crypt. More of that and it would have made it a bit more peppy. That and a bit of a tighter script. As it stands, I still really enjoy this movie. I wish it hadn’t been given such a hard time as there is a lot to like. It was brave to do this movie – despite the last minute, misguided cowardice from the studio. It has a spirit of adventure that shows through in certain scenes with an imaginative take on life on another planet. 

Brett: Honestly, what annoys me most is that I REALLY wanted to like this, and I… just… didn’t. This gets added to an annoyingly long list of things I feel like I should like and just don’t. I feel like I’m on the outside looking in at a party, but they’re playing music I don’t like and eating food that makes me sick. But everyone else is having fun and I feel bad just mentioning if I eat the shrimp stuffed mushrooms I will basically explode and die. Don’t worry John Carter, you’re in good company on that shelf, with a lot of other fan favorites.

Jeremy: If you take away all the stigma surrounding this movie, you’ll find an occasionally bland but enjoyable adventure story. You could do so much worse. For Andrew Stanton, an animation director switching over to live-action for the first time, it’s a surprisingly assured debut. The problem is that this went through the Disney sausage factory. And no matter how good the ingredients, anything that goes through a sausage factory is gonna taste like sausage. 

Thanks for reading, everyone. We’ll be back soon with one more movie in this pulp/weird fiction block, A Whisperer in Darkness. In the meantime, follow us on Twitter for more ramblings on movies and other nerdy pursuits.  And leave us a comment below. We’d love to hear from you.


The Indefinsibles: The Shadow (1994)

Gabby: We channel our otherworldly powers whilst discussing…

Jeremy: The Shadow. Who knows what need for cultural sensitivity training lurks in the hearts of men?

Gabby: So that was fun!

Brett: Yeah, this movie is always fun. It’s just not perfect. It might even be objectively bad. I can’t be objective about it though.

Jeremy: Neither can I.

Gabby: I would watch it again.

Jeremy: Before we go further, let’s introduce this latest round of movies. We’re each picking a film we want to defend that’s inspired by classic works of pulp/weird fiction. We’re starting with Brett’s pick, The Shadow. This movie’s been on our radar since we first started talking about doing these retrospectives. Not that it matters who picks a movie, but I assumed the two of us (both huge Shadow fans) were going to have to rock-paper-scissors for this one. Surprisingly, there was another movie I wanted to do more.

So let’s start at the beggining: when did everyone first see The Shadow?

Gabby: This was my first experience.

Brett: I started with the radio show, and then read some of the stories, the comics and movies came last for me. The Shadow was my favorite radio show as a kid. So of course I was there on opening night to see this movie, and I mostly enjoyed it.

Jeremy: My history with The Shadow is surprisingly personal. This movie came out in July 1994, which was the last month before me and my family moved to a different state. I was fifteen and had come out of my shell over the last school year – so I was taking the whole thing about as well as you would expect. Everything was already in boxes and we spent that July in a furnished apartment. My only sibling was off at college. So with nothing much to do, my parents were cool and let me practically live with my friends until we left town.

I bounced from house to house. While staying with my best friend at the timeWellesShadow, the two of us decided to see The Shadow on a whim (neither of us had heard of the character before). The poster looked cool and we were fifteen. Of course we were down for a superhero movie.

We both loved it (me in particular). Part of the merchandising push for this movie was re-releasing episodes of the radio show. I picked up one of those sets a few days later. Pretty sure it was around 20 episodes. I remember listening to Orson Welles as The Shadow on my Walkman during the drive to a new home in a new state. I kept tracking down episodes and listening to them alone in my bedroom that autumn while coming out of my new shell.

I still enjoy the movie, but part of that fondness no doubt comes from it taking me back to a bittersweet time.

Brett: My history goes back further. When I was a little, little kid, like 3, there was a station that played old radio shows.

So I listened to a bunch of stuff, The Shadow was one of the only things they played that wasn’t a comedy. So The Shadow was the one badass I listened to late at night when I wasn’t sleeping. We got some tapes of episodes when I was about 12 or so. 8 tapes, 16 episodes, very cool stuff. There was a podcast that put, like, 50 episodes out as a podcast.

I got some reprints of the stories in little collected books that were probably printed in the ’70s at my middle school library. It should go without saying that I was A PIMP in school. Had to beat the babes off with a stick.

What I liked about The Shadow, what I have always liked, is that mysticism is allowed to be the answer. You don’t get that Hardy Boys nonsense where the solution is so goofy and convoluted that ghosts would be more sensible.

This movie is a little more comic book and a little less pulp story, but the baddie is still allowed to be an Eastern mystic, and they allow for the power of the atomic bomb. It straddles both worlds that The Shadow existed in.

Gabby: Although, I have had little in the way of comparison as to interpretation, I did pick up upon the interesting mix of magic and superpowers.

Jeremy: Yeah, that’s where the character from the pulps and the radio show diverge, to my knowledge. We’ll talk about the history of The Shadow in a moment.

Gabby: I think a good thing would actually be to discuss some of those things it aims to be and how successful those are.

Jeremy: It has the same basic flaw as most ’90s popcorn movies: it can’t decide what it wants to be. It tries to please everyone.

Brett: It’s tone is too mushy. It wants to be a comic book and a pulp story and a mystery and an adventure and it wants to be the pure version of all of those instead of a mixture. However, that does mean the individual scenes taken on their own are generally fine. It’s a little clunky, but it gets to where you want to go. 

Jeremy: Agreed. I like each element of this story – except the goddamned shrieking face knife – but the pieces don’t always fit together. The problem is this: every time screenwriter David Koepp commits to an earnest idea, he hesitates and instead goes for a joke. It’s the screenwriting equivalent of trying to convince your boss about something at work, but you keep saying things like, “I don’t know – I could be wrong, but…”shadowknife2

I like Koepp’s writing, though. The guy knows banter, and I live for banter. And he does an admirable job of taking the different versions of The Shadow from different mediums and combining them together.

Briefly, the origin of The Shadow began on the radio in 1930 – though the character was only the narrator of a crime anthology show. (Think the Crypt Keeper from Tales from the Crypt.)

The character became so popular that he got his own pulp series the next year, which ran until 1949. The look of the character matches what we see in the movie, and he’s a bit like Batman – a master detective who’s trained to peak mental and physical condition. He’s also a master of stealth and disguises. In fact, Lamont Cranston is just one of his aliases in the pulps. The Shadow got an origin story a couple of years in, but it was never that important. These are stories about a superhero fighting bad guys for fighting bad guys’ sake.

In 1937, the character goes back to radio with his own half-hour show. The way they get him to work over the airwaves is pretty brilliant. This version of the character has the ability to “cloud men’s mind” so no one can see him. Obviously, an invisible man plays beautifully on radio. It’s here that Margo Lane is introduced. And this character actually is Lamont Cranston, a young playboy who fights crime around living the high life with a beautiful companion. For a lot of fans of the pulps, this was a safe, water-downed version of the character.

I’m not sure there’s another superhero this well-known that doesn’t have a clear character bible. Whether it’s Adam West or Michael Keaton or Christian Bale, Batman is always Batman. It’s the tone that changes. Based on the medium, The Shadow is barely the same character. For my money, this hybrid version of The Shadow is the best interpretation so far. We get some of the street-level grittiness and the supernatural powers. And despite the goddamned shrieking face knife, the origin story works for me.

Brett: So how many of us have read the stories, listened to the radio show or read the comics? Or saw the two movies made in the ’30s?

I haven’t read all the pulp stories, or read many of the comics, but I have read enough to know what we’re dealing with. The stories were a little more “mystery around every corner” while the radio show was just a detective show that allowed supernatural explanations. The two movies I have from the ’30s are basically short serials. They’re on that level of quality and storytelling style. 

Gabby: I watched one of the ’30s movies of The Shadow, after seeing this version, and I was not really a fan. What is your favourite story of The Shadow?

Brett: It’s honestly been so long since I read any. There is a radio episode that sticks with me, though. The Thing in the Cage has a creepy as all fuck ending. 

Gabby: So racism… Is that reoccurring in this thing? The Asain stereotyping here is quite extreme in the first section of the movie. Where they use China as a dark and mysterious land full of evil magics and men with a lust for power.

Brett: There was a TON of Yellow Peril stuff in pulp before Nazis took over at the baddie du jour. It’s not just The Shadow, the mysterious East was both a place where all the really cool stuff came from and all the clever villains. Racism is always going to be part of the deal, because these were disreputable populist stories and could do disreputable populist stuff. dvd_snapshot_00-27-12_2013-03-12_20-28-46

Jeremy: These stories are of their time. Nothing I’ve read in any of the pulps is a direct attack on any race or culture. That’s not an excuse for the horribly outdated things found in these stories. If you’ve read or listened to a Shadow story that contradicts that statement, let us know. We’re all mature enough here to appreciate a story from the past while acknowledging the problems of the past.

With that in mind, let’s get this out of the way: how does Shiwan Khan play for everyone? Going only by this movie, do you find him or his henchmen offensive?

Brett: I probably should find it more offensive than I do. I think because it’s set in a historical place, and that John Lone really doesn’t play up to Yellow Peril stereotypes, I tend to forgive it. He’s not trying to get Margo hooked on opium so he can sell her to white slavers while bringing down the decadent West, I sort of look past a lot of it. His henchmen don’t play a large enough part either. We rarely really see them.

I am a white guy, though. I try, but, you know… white American.

Jeremy: I get that. You and I are living life on the easiest difficulty setting. That’s right where I am with these characters, as well. For both Khan and Dr. Tam, who The Shadow recruits at the beginning of the movie, that’s where they’re from, not who they are. Does that make sense?

Brett: Yes. Khan’s reasons are very much universal. He wants power and wealth. He might as wells stroke a white cat and be all “You have interfered for the last time, Yin Ko.”

Gabby: I found some of it offensive and some of it not so much. I think Khan is, as you both say, played in a way that makes him more than a typical villain with wishes of grand power.

I think it was more the way they introduced ‘the Orient’ in the film, that struck me as offensive, but then I think they manage to get away with that and use the Eastern magic as an influence on the character and the villains. Like you said Jeremy, it is the place they are from and not why they are evil.

Jeremy: Koepp giving Cranston a darker backstory helps. Both men committed the same atrocities and were given the same opportunity to redeem themselves. This is one of the few times I enjoy the “We’re not so different, you and I…” cliché.

And I dig the Redemption Work Study program that Cranston and Khan go through. Cranston is not chosen as a white savior or anything. He’s chosen because he’s a monster with an ounce of good left in him. It’s never explicitly said, but I assume there are “Shadows” all over the world doing what Cranston does.

Obviously, having a Nazi bad guy or something would’ve gone down easier. But this movie weighed the source material, considered these concerns, and tried to do something about them. It’s a step – probably too a small step – in the right direction.

Gabby: I like the trope of mirroring the villain and the hero, that is always interesting. Screenshot (45)I suppose linking the villain to Genghis Khan helped. Having a real historical figure, one that became one of the most feared conquerors, makes it seem not a racist fear it is tapping into, but a fear of dead legends coming back to haunt us. Vlad the Impaler is another figure like this, for instance.

Brett: That’s back to the pulp stories. Shiwan Khan was featured in at least two stories. I don’t remember Shiwan Khan having psychic powers.

Jeremy: Vlad the Impaler would’ve been wicked awesome.

Brett: I also don’t think the romantic dynamic worked, mostly because Baldwin and Miller kind of had no romantic chemistry. Oddly though, as friends who fight crime, it worked. When they didn’t try to have them flirting, they worked better. They make good co-workers, though.

Jeremy: Their kiss at the end stuck out for me on this viewing. Alec Baldwin was the perfect Lamont Cranston in 1994. The same for Penelope Ann Miller as Margo Lane. (And holy shit, the supporting cast in this movie…) They’re not perfect together. They have some chemistry. It still works – and would’ve worked better if they kept their relationship platonic.

It ties into something else I found off on this viewing: Cranston is enjoying himself a little too much. That’s not Baldwin’s fault. He’s going off the script. I like that the movie is fun. I don’t want a “dark and gritty” Shadow. Cranston’s just a little too redeemed for the first movie. It’s like we’re getting where this character would be one or two sequels down the road. shadow947

Brett: If they were making the movie today, they would have things more franchise-minded. They probably would have a better idea what tone they want to strike and get closer to it. Or they’d try to get “clever” and ruin the whole thing with in-jokes and terrible ertaz radio shows.

Jeremy: Khan would be the First Horseman or some shit like that, yeah. Doc Savage would show up for one scene.

Brett: Now speaking of a character that needs a new movie!

Jeremy: Shane Black and The Rock, baby. I hope it gets made. I’m assuming the ’70s Doc Savage movie is something readers can expect in the future.

Brett: OK, there is one scene that I think should have been super chilling, but it’s played for laughs. When Shiwan Khan gets the guy to throw himself off the Empire State Building. Think about it and that’s a very dark and wicked. He makes someone commit suicide over a bit of mockery. I feel like John Lone thought that scene should be played darker. But then they cut away and make a joke as we see the body bouncing on the way down.

And killing the guard at the beginning is pretty dark -

Jeremy: Even if it’s Neelix from Voyager…

Brett: …and it’s given some weight. Again, the jumbled tone thing.

400px-Shad_01Jeremy: I lost my shit over the “It’s all falling into place…” gag in theaters, to the point where people turned around and looked at me. It’s a Peter Jackson/Sam Raimi joke. I still get a little nostalgic kick out of it, but thirtysomething Jeremy knows better.

It’s an honest swing and a miss. At least it’s not “Next time, you get to be on top.” What the hell is that doing in this movie?

What does everyone make of Russell Mulcahy? Through the ’80s and early ’90s, he made several movies like The Shadow that found their audience on home video.

Brett: I’m generally okay with him. He seems to know the movie he’s making. Commentaries and interviews with him have led me to believe there has been a lot of interference in the movies he’s made. He tries to please everyone, and as a result, a lot of his movies are all over the place.The light-hearted adventure thing can work, he made it work in Highlander. The story as presented here needed to be one thing or the other.

It should have gone more for light-hearted adventure and left the attempts at darkness to one side.

Jeremy: “He was a music video director” is a classic cheap shot, but it holds water here. It’s not that he’s too focused on visuals. There’s a stitched-together feeling here I get from a lot of movies made by directors who got their start in music videos.

It’s odd that I want Mulcahy to go darker with the material. That’s not usually my thing. I like that this is a redemption story. I’m all for stories that say, yes, we can change – but change is hard. It goes back to the fact that Lamont is already at Step 12 of Megalomaniac’s Anonymous when I want him at Step 8 or 9.

Brett: I could have done without the atomic bomb. I would have preferred some murder mystery story full of characters and suspects and not taking over the world or using atom bombs.

Jeremy: I’m indifferent about the A-bomb. And it should be said that the final showdown between The Shadow and Khan feels so weak because an earthquake destroyed the original set and they ran out of time and money.

Back to something positive: whoever came up with the notion that Lamont can never hide his shadow, the last vestige of the darkness within, is brilliant. Dscn4251To my knowledge, that was invented for this movie, and I can’t imagine the character without it now.

Brett: Oh, and I just checked. In the radio show, Lamont learned the invisibility trick from Yogi priests in India. And he used modern science to improve his mental skills. I’m not sure of the shadow on the wall was part of the comics. It’s an excellent addition.

Jeremy: In all the pulps I’ve read, he’s a master of stealth and disguises. When he’s sneaking around, bad guys sometimes see an odd shadow where one shouldn’t be, but that’s about it. To my knowledge, it’s not there as a weakness, nor does it symbolize anything. As the pulps go on, more vague hints of the supernatural pop up. The main writer of the pulps, Walter Gibson, wanted The Shadow to be horribly disfigured, prompting the need for all the disguises. Gibson’s editors nixed it.

Speaking of Sam Raimi, he pitched his version of The Shadow in the late ’80s using that premise. Once the studio passed, he ended up using those elements in Darkman.

Brett: How do we feel this fares as a historical piece? Is it a good historical piece? Bad? Do they set up the world well? Compare with Dick Tracy, The Phantom, Captain America: First Avenger – or something like Poirot and other UK period shows that subsequently played on A&E like crazy.

Jeremy: It’s a handsome production. Not sure how accurate it is. It works, though. Does this little niche of superhero movies have a name? I usually just call them Art Deco superhero movies. I hope we cover more movies in this quirky little sub genre. So far, we’ve talked about this and The Phantom. Depending on how long we do this, I imagine we’ll get to most of them. We definitely need to do Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow one day.

Brett: I always called these Hat movies, because of people wearing hats. I also put Indiana Jones in here, since I don’t think any of the other hat movies exist without Indy. I have a love/hate with Dick Tracy, because it was almost good and then Madonna shows up.

Jeremy: And The Rocketeer and The Phantom are more trying to capture the spirit of Indiana Jones than actual movies from the ’30s. If Batman: Mask of the Phantasm counts, that’s my clear favorite of the ’30s/’40s superhero homages.

And with that, final thoughts, everyone?

Gabby: This is another mess, but a fun one. Though it tries for way too many things that it doesn’t pull off, it works in serial form. Meaning that sequences and scenes work separately. charlies_angels_full_throttle_10176But the movie as a whole, despite its flaws, has a lot of things to admire. The fact it aims for so much is quite charming really. And there are some sequences that make me want to watch it again relatively soon.

Brett: I will always have a soft spot for The Shadow and any movie directed by Russell Mulcahy. You can say a lot about the guy, but he tried to be interesting and exciting. You can feel him making an effort to just entertain you if he can. I’ve never seen one of his movies and thought he was being lazy. I appreciate him.

Jeremy: It’s still a lot of fun. I wish it was more solid, but here we are. I’m always going to have a soft spot for it. And not just for the movie it is and where it appeared in my life: this was my gateway into classic radio dramas and pulp fiction. It’s like your first kiss. It doesn’t matter if it was good. It was the beginning of something new.

Thanks for reading, everyone. Summertime and real life have interrupted our regular schedule of late, but we’re already a fair way into talking about Gabby and I’s picks. We’ll be back soon with John Carter.

In the meantime, follow us on Twitter where we talk about movies and other nerdy stuff. Oh, and say it with us one last time: stupid goddamned shrieking face knife…

The Indefinsibles: The Black Cauldron (1985)

Bargaining switches/With big boobed witches/Swords that seem freaky/And mist that’s creepy/Undead skeletons ruled by Demon Kings/These are a few of my favorite things?/Why does this movie make me feel so bad? ♪

Gabby: You guessed it, my pick for our Dark Disney series is, The Black Cauldron.

Jeremy: At the time I’m writing this, my local movie theater has a screen dedicated to playing old Disney movies. The Black Cauldron’s playing this weekend. Should I take my toddler and videotape him being traumatized?

Brett: Sweet Monkey Jesus! Obviously we want that!

Jeremy: I doubt I’ll take him. Even if you factor in my desire to irreparably traumatize him, I don’t want to see this again anytime soon.

Gabby: So have we all seen this before? downloadI saw this on video when I was younger. I must have watched a few times but it didn’t get played nearly as often as the others. I hadn’t seen the film since the late ’90s most likely.

Jeremy: Before this retrospective, only once in theaters back in ’85. I would’ve been six. As you can imagine, it wasn’t a good experience. I had already seen films like Temple of Doom and Ghostbusters in theaters, but this experience was different. And not in a good way.

I’m sure the movie scared me, but even back then, I liked being scared by melting Nazis and killer robots and the like. I remember The Black Cauldron feeling so… oppressive. Before watching it again, the one clear memory I had was Gurgi jumping into the cauldron during the climax and his resurrection a few minutes later. Of course, I didn’t mind Gurgi as a kid. But the movie wore me down so much that, by the time he came back, I was not having any of it. Too little, too late.

I’m trying to find the right word to describe The Black Cauldron. What keeps coming to mind is abrasive. Not because it’s dark and scary, but because it’s so relentless and manic. It’s like The Fellowship of the Ring if you removed anything endearing about the fellowship and just kept torturing them with orcs and dark riders for 80 minutes straight.

Brett: I saw this in the theater too. This is really sort of frustrating because there was clearly a good movie that could have been made here. The Prydain books are well regarded. There is a lot of talent on display here. 

Gabby: images (1)One problem with this movie is that the lead is a tosser. I remember not really liking him when I watched this as a child.

‘What do girls know about swords?’ Giant arsehole…

Brett: He’s a kid. Like genuinely 14 or something. He hasn’t discovered feminism yet. Princess Welsh Name will help with that.

Gabby: Uhhh… he shouldn’t have been taught sexism. Not, he should wait for feminism. The person who brought him up does not seem to be a sexist arse so he should have been brought up with the ideals.

My brother was more mature at four than this guy.

Brett: It’s the 10th Century and he was raised on a pig farm with one old man. Congratulate him when he does well. He should be congratulated for not claiming all her property and having her family killed when she displeases him! He’s raised in a society that doesn’t even consider women to be people in the strictest sense of the word, so… I’m just sayin’… Game of Thrones… something something….

Gabby: Exactly. Where would he pick sexism up? In fact, 14 in the 10th is like 44 to us probably. Especially to a farmer. 

Brett: Frankly, while I agree the hero is a little sexist, the witches are what stick in my craw.dvd_snapshot_00-27-12_2013-03-12_20-28-46 The depiction of the witches comes off as truly misogynistic. That bit goes on forever and it’s hateful the whole time. This is basically a prequel to Game of Thrones. With less rape and more Gurgi.

Jeremy: Ah, Jesus… Gurgi. I meet in the middle on this one. I’m OK with the youth being callow if he grows. In this case, though, the kid doesn’t have a leg to stand on. The magic sword literally does all the work for him. All he has to do is hang on to the damn thing. What an odd story choice that is.

Gabby: That is exactly her argument too. He is a bit full of himself I guess.

Jeremy: The problem is he’s a character who grows over a series of novels. We’re only getting one piece of a larger story, crammed into an 80-minute movie that’s a tonal mess.

Gabby: Yeah that is a big problem!

Brett: And why were they adapting the second book in the series? That just feels odd.

Jeremy: So it’s loosely the character journey from the first book and the MacGuffin from the second?

I get the impression that part of the tonal dissonance came from two different generations of Disney talent. It feels like the old guard intended to make a traditional animated film, but the young upstarts kept adding more skeletons and boob shots with the witches. There are SO MANY boob shots in this movie, you guys.

Brett: I feel like I’ve already run out of things to say. There’s not much to it. This was a movie that just didn’t work too well. It’s got a feel similar to The Sword in the Stone, but then Team B came in and made things dark.

Jeremy: There is one thing we haven’t talked about, and I can’t believe it took us almost a thousand words to get here. This movie features an oracular pig.Dscn4251 A fuckin’ oracular pig. You can’t make stuff like that up. That beats wasp royal jelly for the biggest “The fuck…?” moment in any movie we’ve covered.

Brett: I have a blind spot for the pig. I keep forgetting about how crazy that is because in the end it really doesn’t matter.

Jeremy: It’s weird. It’s like the appetizer MacGuffin before the entree MacGuffin. The pig’s just there to get everyone interested in the Black Cauldron.

Gabby: The fact “oracular pig” is said in any movie is amazing really! Wasp royal jelly was pretty fabulous though.

I have a few more things to mention. What do you think of the Horned King design?

Jeremy: I have mixed feeling about his design. The silhouette is terrific, but I’m already blanking on what he looked like – especially the face.

Gabby: I am with you on the silhouette of the horned king being powerful and the face not living up to it. It just doesn’t have the punch needed. I also agree that it is strange to adapt the second book. I tried to find the first book in some libraries near me and it wasn’t on record. I am not sure if this film has something to do with that.

The witches truly are awful. It is beyond offensive. They felt very abrasive, to quote Jeremy’s word. 

I remember being scared by the Horned King as a child. That segment where he puts the skeleton in the cauldron is an exampletumblr_inline_o29fxvx9q41rklbsy_540 of where the score is really effective. The green stuff that came out of the cauldron following the orange blast gave me nightmares for several months. There was something about the colour and the accompanying high pitched noise. The same, scored, sound that is present when you see all the green as the skeletons march. Those balls the Princess has in combination were that colour in my dream. Those things put me on edge too, but that was more the context. That of a horrible castle with a possessed horned skeleton wanting to reign his army of the undead over the land. Rather than the glowing balls themselves.

Jeremy: And the crazy thing is a lot of the scarier footage was removed before release. Apparently, at a test screening of this longer cut, kids ran out of the theater in terror. Part of me is like, “That’s wrong, man.” The other part of me – the parent currently trapped in toddler hell – read that, laughed maniacally, and screamed, “YESSSSSS!!!”

Here’s an interesting coincidence, thanks to our age gap: Brett and I were quite young when we saw this in theaters, and you were about the same age when this finally got a home video release in the ’90s. We should mention that Disney buried this movie for a long time after its release.

Brett: I quote directly from Wikipedia here – Jeffrey Katzenberg, then-Chairman of the Walt Disney Studios, was dismayed by the product and the animators felt that it lacked “the humor, pathos, and the fantasy which had been so strong in Lloyd Alexander’s work. The story had been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and it was heartbreaking to see such wonderful material wasted.”

I mean… ouch.

Jeremy: He’s right, though.

Gabby: He is right about humour and pathos. The film needs it. That is what I was kind of getting at when I said he is a bit of a sexist protagonist. It is more that he is a self-absorbed one, and thinks of others as less important. He also lacks a sense of humour. Brett mentioned The Sword and the Stone. When rewatching Black Cauldron, there is a part where the witches are in the clouds for the first time, telling them about the cauldron. Screenshot (55)That really reminded me of the part where Merlin and Madam Mim have a Duel. The way it is drawn, the grey colouring of the sky and ground, as well as the shape of the trees, is incredibly similar. But it lacks the wonderful sense of humour and character present in Sword and the Stone. I love Madam Mim. She is such a fire of energy. They needed something like that here to add some energy to the fantasy.

Jeremy: We should also mention Elmer Bernstein’s score I don’t hear Bernstein mentioned that often. He knew how to write an eerie film score. Some of the cues feel quite similar to his work on Ghostbusters, though. That’s not entirely a bad thing. You can’t overstate how important his score is to Ghostbusters.

Brett: This score was cut to pieces. So it doesn’t come off as his best work.

Gabby: I have seen there is a bit of an internet campaign to get that uncut version re-released. I would definitely see that.

Elmer Bernstein is brilliant and the fact they cut his score up to pieces really does show the makers of this film did not know what they were doing. The score is so powerful in the sections with the Horned King.

Jeremy: I need to track down more details about what scenes were cut. I’m curious if a director’s cut would restore some connective tissue or just be more skulls & boobs wankery.

Brett: Skull and boobs wankery. drew-barrymore-as-dylan-sandersI have just found the subtitle for this group: The Indefensibles – Skull and boob wankery.

Jeremy: And, er, on that note, final thoughts, everyone?

Gabby: I stand by being scared of that scene where the Horned King awakens his army of the dead. That still packs a punch, thanks to the imagery actually being effective here and Bernstein’s score. The scene where Eilonwy saves Taran with her glowy balls I think is very atmospheric as well. It is a pity there is so much of the film that is actiuvely hateful alongside moments like that.

Brett: We barely talked about Gurgi, but he bugs me. He should be lovable, but he ain’t. His sorta-self-sacrifice really annoyed me. I think because it was so passive aggressive. “Oh, you have lots of friends I have none.” *JUMPS* It’s not noble, he doesn’t do it because he loves the guy and wants him to be safe, he just doesn’t have any friends. Smeagol didn’t have any friends, and he did fine. (He did fine, right? I never finished the books, it just got to being too many songs. He got away, right? Smeagol was okay, right?)

Jeremy: I’m ambivalent. I get why this is a favorite for some people – especially fans of Lloyd Alexander’s novels. There’s a spark – a joy – that’s missing for me. Except for a few subversive moments here and there, there’s no passion here. It feels like something Disney started and had to finish. I could go another thirty years without seeing it again and be fine with it. Maybe it would grow on me if I gave it another chance. You never know.

Thanks for reading, everyone. This was the last film in our Dark Disney retrospective series, which we had a lot of fun doing.wsad We’ll be back soon with three films inspired by classic pulp/weird fiction. We’re starting with Brett’s pick, 1994’s The Shadow. In the meantime, follow us on Twitter. We’ll most likely be a little more active on social media during F This Movie’s Junesploitation event. You can also leave us a comment below. We’d love to hear from you.