On the latest episode of The B-Movies Podcast here on CraveOnline (which featured our brilliant colleague Grae Drake as a special guest), we spent some time discussing the potentially dubious legacy that may be left behind by The Cabin in the Woods, which was reviewed on the show. I, being remiss, did not make it to any screenings of the film, so I couldn't give any sort of proper informed opinion, but I did, through mere instinct, mind you, predict that The Cabin in the Woods would probably suffer the same fate as much of screenwriter Josh Whedon's output; that is, it would be very high concept and attract the affection of his usual legion of fans, but such a mob would still not be enough to count the thing as a success. Whedon would be well loved by millions, but not well loved enough to grant him mainstream success on that particular creation of his (he seems to get a lot of cultural cache from his Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series). But then, a few years would pass, fans would continue to lionize his film, and it would develop a huge cult following. This has happened to Whedon several times before (see: Firefly, Serenity, Dollhouse). The Cabin in the Woods is, I predict, going to be big on the midnight circuit in a few years. It'll probably rank lowly on the weekend's releases.
This happens a lot, if you're paying attention. Often a perfectly decent – and sometimes even groundbreaking – genre film will break its way into theaters with little fanfare or advertising, and quietly blow critics away. But, for one reason or another (bad distribution, studio action to bury their product, pointed lack of advertising), the film will not be seen by many. But, thanks to home video, and the religious persistence of the cult film aficionado, the film will live on in pop cultural bywords, and through cult passwords. Soon, it will become a largely beloved object of a few, but still largely ignored by the public at large.
These are the films we don't deserve. The great movies we ignore, and only give back to when it's too late. Let's look at a few.
Idiocracy (dir. Mike Judge, 2006)
It was a low-budget but high-concept sci-fi comedy from the guy who already had a cult hit with Office Space, and who had rattled the TV animation zeitgeist with Beavis and Butt-Head and King of the Hill. You would think a sci-fi film by Mike Judge would be a no-brainer. The idea was even funny: an average fellow (played by Luke Wilson) is cryogenically frozen, and awakens centuries in the future, when the human race has evolved into the grunting, giggling morons obsessed with cheap thrills, destruction, and cheap sex. Curse words have casually entered the lexicon, and politicians are elected due to their WWF-like personae. Consumerism has run amok, and energy drinks have replaced water in all regards. In addition to being very funny (no one can write a “stupid” gag like Mike Judge), it is actually one of the most spot-on parodies of American culture that has come along in many years.
The film was released in a small handful of theaters, and was given almost no advertising. Perhaps it was because the film's central theme was one of anti-advertising, or maybe it was just the spiteful orchestration of a bitter Fox exec, but Idiocracy was buried, and made almost no money upon its theatrical run. The film did gain traction on home video, though, and a cult did form around it. In fact, it gained enough traction to land Judge a gig making Extract. Extract, by the way, bombed. Too bad.
Zodiac (dir. David Fincher, 2007)
David Fincher's Zodiac, which excruciatingly details the events surrounding the infamous Zodiac Killer, is, I feel, one of the best crime movies of the last 25 years. It not only works as an historically accurate police procedural, but manages to work in themes of obsession-to-the-point-of-ruin without resorting to dull melodrama. It has great performances across the board, and is impeccably designed (the 1970s interiors are thick with the ancient stale cigarette smoke of the time). It was released in March of 2007, and I saw it opening night. I fell in love instantly, and tried to tout the film as one of the greatest of the year. Indeed, nothing beat it out that year, and I declared it the best of 2007.
It was released in March, however, which is not a time known for releasing the Best Film of the Year (the so-called “prestige pictures” and “Oscar bait” are most frequently released in December). As such, the Academy granted it zero (0) Oscar nominations. It cost about $65 million, and made only about $13 million in its first weekend. Audiences stayed away in droves. A few conversations with friends a few months later revealed the real reason to the film's unsuccess: the film had no action-packed conclusion. I knew going in that The Zodiac Killer was never apprehended, and, I think, viewers wanted the big confrontation scene. I guess I can say little to defend that, but I can implore that you seek out this truly great classic film. It will be hard to find something more impeccably gorgeous and taut.
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (dir. Tom Tykwer, 2006)
I guess I can see why this one didn't set the world on fire: It may be just a little too weird for most people. Even the premise is strange. Tom Tykwer's Perfume: The Story of a Murderer is about an 18th century Parisian outcast (Ben Whishaw) who was born with a supernaturally sensitive sense of smell. As a result, he grew up as an ignorant outsider, and spent his youth in orphanages. When he visits the big city of the first time, he catches a whiff of a pretty redhead, and, while trying to follow her to get more of her intoxicating scent, accidentally kills her. This super-nosed man then makes it his life goal to create a perfume – made from exquisitely scented women – that will be, essentially, the very scent of love itself. Of course, to extract the scent from a woman, he has to kill them.
Like I said: pretty off-the-wall idea for what is essentially a crime movie. But the film is full of such a gloriously rococo sensibility, and commits so strongly to its fable-like narrative, that it can be, I think, greatly enjoyed by anyone. It resembles, in many ways, a Ken Russell movie. This was a truly enjoyable oddity that should have a huge cult by now. Heck, the film features a 300-person orgy, beheadings, deaths, and all manner of 18th century depravity. It's twisted and brilliant… and has been largely ignored by audiences. Roger Ebert gave the film four stars. That didn't help. It cost about $50 million to make, and made about $14 million in the U.S. (although it did make its money back internationally). If you live in America, and you haven't seen Perfume, then you are missing out on a great movie. And that's most of you.
From the Desk of William Bibbiani:
This is why we can’t have nice things.
The Cabin in the Woodshas been hailed across the board as a brilliant genre film, packed with exciting incident and lovable characters. But reports have come in that audiences, I suspect anticipating something more conventional, gave the film a mediocre “C” CinemaScore on the way out of theaters (and a paltry “D+” average from female filmgoers in particular). At the risk of snootiness, this is not The Cabin in the Woods’ fault. It’s partially the fault of the marketing department for failing to prepare audiences for the actual motion picture experience audiences were in for, and partially the fault of audiences for not recognizing a good thing when they see it, even if it was unexpected. As of this writing, the movie is expected to open at third place this weekend, at about $15 million, less than all but one of the formulaic Saw movies, less than either of the Halloween remakes, less even than the universally-reviled Nicole Kidman version of The Stepford Wives from 2004.
If you saw The Cabin in the Woods this weekend, this statement is not for you. But if you have ever complained that Hollywood doesn’t make good original films anymore, and you didn’t see The Cabin in the Woods this weekend, then you have no one to blame but yourselves. (Sound familiar?) The film industry makes movies that they think you want to see, and buying a ticket is the only way to submit your vote. If you shell out to see mediocrity, then that’s what you’ll get. But once in a blue moon somebody actually takes a chance on something genuinely special, a film that dares to try something different and does it remarkably well, and while it may reach an audience eventually (thank you, home video), if it doesn’t find one fairly quickly the industry as a whole will think it was a big mistake to have even tried. If The Cabin in the Woods had done beautifully at the box office, studios would have felt the need to produce more original, intelligent and superlative motion pictures in order to repay your interest. But it didn’t, and so once again all our worst fears will come true: at least another couple of years of drek, all because we couldn’t be bothered to support the right movie.
This isn’t the first time Hollywood has given us a movie we didn’t deserve, and I’m not even referring to art house movies or Oscar bait dramas. I’m talking about genuine, crowd-pleasing genre entertainment that just plain failed to find an audience… at least in time to prove something to the studio system. Witney’s already given some of his favorite films we didn’t deserve. Here are a handful of my own. If you never saw them, you owe it to yourself and the filmmakers to make up for that.
Punch-Drunk Love (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, 2002)
If you groan whenever you hear that Adam Sandler is making another lowbrow comedy, and you didn’t see Punch-Drunk Love, then that’s on you, dude. Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood) crafted one of the most distinctive American films of the last decade in Punch-Drunk Love, a film that looks beyond Sandler’s immature, aggressive façade and finds within it a tragic figure in need of compassion, and fully capable of change. Sandler plays Barry Egan, a novelty toilet plunger manufacturer in his thirties who has never made a genuine human connection, belittled as he was by his overbearing sisters and filled with misplaced rage at his own inability to communicate his emotions. A chance meeting with a sympathetic soul played by Emily Watson gives Barry the confidence he needs to confront his family, exploit a poorly-conceived pudding sweepstakes and defend his new girlfriend from a shady phone sex company that’s been extorting money from him. The plot reads like a laundry list of concepts you’d find in a dullard comedy, but under the thoughtful and endlessly inventive direction of Anderson (listen closely to the sound effects: the pudding talks to Barry), they contribute to one of the most meaningful character-driven comedy-dramas you’re ever likely to see. It didn’t make any money. Enjoy Grown Ups 2.
Peter Pan (dir. P.J. Hogan, 2003)
These days, big budget live-action family movies seem limited to awful CGI-laden concoctions like Alvin and the Chipmunks and The Smurfs. I suspect that if P.J. Hogan’s spot-on and thrilling production of Peter Pan had found its audience, that wouldn’t be much of an issue. Peter Pan takes J.M. Barrie’s tale of stunted childhood fantasies and runs with it, playing the story remarkably straight for a modern retelling. The Darling children, led by Wendy (Rachel Hurd-Wood, also of Perfume), abandon their family for fear of putting away childish things, following the spritely Peter Pan (a particularly charismatic Jeremy Sumpter, from “Friday Night Lights”) to the magical Never Never Land. There, they encounter the dastardly Captain Hook, played by Jason Isaacs (Harry Potter), the same actor who portrays the Darling’s father. The message is fittingly ironic, celebrating the childlike wonder while expressing the importance of maturity, and Hogan beautifully illustrates both aspects of his tale. Never Never Land is one of the most gorgeously realized fantasy universes ever captured on screen, and smarter scenes, like the one where Captain Hook sees Peter in the throws of young love and cries because he’s being outgrown, will enrapture adults who didn’t pick up on those subtleties as children. Or at least they would, if any kids had gone to see it in the first place.
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (dir. Edgar Wright, 2010)
Oh, we all knew this was coming. For all the fanboy buzz surrounding Edgar Wright’s adaptation of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s comic book phenomenon, mainstream audiences stayed away in droves. I saw Scott Pilgrim again on its third week of release, and sat behind a group of teens who had no desire to see it. They openly mocked the marketing campaign and vowed to walk out and get their money back if the film didn’t impress them within five minutes. (They were late to an earlier screening of Piranha 3D, I learned.) Not only did they not ask for their money back, but they gave the film a standing ovation during the credits. Scott Pilgrim beautifully captures the subjective world of young romance through the eyes of a generation raised on multimedia, and video games in particular, telling the story of Scott (Michael Cera), a self-absorbed schmo who discovers his self-worth while fighting off seven evil ex-boyfriends (well, evil “exes” at any rate) to prove that he’s man enough to date his new girlfriend, Ramona (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Hilarious, insightful, and eye-poppingly exciting from start to finish. Even though it’s on the books as a box office bomb, the cult has already formed. It was too late to influence the film industry, obviously, but at least Scott Pilgrim eventually won on some level.
John Carter (dir. Andrew Stanton, 2012)
I’ll make this quick, since the story is fresh in everyone’s heads: Wall-E director Andrew Stanton’s first foray into (mostly) live-action filmmaking is now considered one of the biggest box office duds in history, despite the fact that it’s actually rather good. I myself went on record as loving it, but even the pans weren’t too nasty. John Carter is an old-fashioned space opera, taken seriously, which adapts the pulp sci-fi novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs rather faithfully and with utter grandeur. Taylor Kitsch plays a Civil War hero, disgusted with violence, who somehow winds up in the middle of another civil war on the planet Mars. He just wants to go home, but ultimately finds reason to fight after establishing close friendships with some of the oppressed people. Sounds a little conventional? That’s probably why audiences stayed away, thanks in no part to an uninspired marketing campaign that sold the special effects (which we’ve seen before) while neglecting the movie’s rich, soulful storytelling. Hollywood may never take a chance on serious sci-fi adventures again. Thanks a lot, you guys.