and the end of the world of action and horror movies
Well, shit. I been looking forward to this one for a long time. ROAD WARRIOR + ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK from the director of THE DESCENT? Yes please. I thought. And in the week since it came out I’ve gotten alot of emails about it and talked to several people who saw it and only 2 of them said they didn’t like it. Most weren’t willing to call it “good” but they did seem pretty delighted by it.
So hopefully most of you who see it will like it too, but Jee and Zuss. To me DOOMSDAY seems like my own personal doomsday, the end of the line for my two favorite genres.
DOOMSDAY is not a horror movie, but after DOG SOLDIERS and THE DESCENT Neil Marshall is a bigshot in the “Splat Pack” or whatever stupid name you want to call what passes for the best horror directors these days. I’ve had alot of discussions with other horror watchers about this crop and what worries me is that so much of modern horror – including the stuff I like – is looking backwards. You got Rob Zombie with his various ’70s homages, Eli Roth with his “grindhouse” and Italian horror and Takashi Miike references. I think Aja shows some promise, but his best movie is a faithful Wes Craven remake. Everybody complains about the avalanche of remakes but even among the well-reviewed movies you got some stuff that’s 100% tribute and references (HATCHET, BEHIND THE MASK). I get it, I like those old movies these directors like too. Let’s all high five each other and quote a couple lines but then let’s make some new movies, shall we? Where is the George Romero or the John Carpenter of today? It can’t be the fucking SAW guys, can it?
Backed into a corner I had to say Neil Marshall was the closest thing we had, based solely on THE DESCENT. It hardly reinvented the genre but it doesn’t closely remind me of any specific movie or type of movie, and it’s nicely executed. For me the character drama works, the setup is creepy (and claustrophobic) as hell, the monsters are perfect, it has a primal rush to it when she beats the Weird Underground Fucker to death with a bone, and there’s that great moment when the bitch who’s been trying to screw her friends over the whole movie uses her dying breaths to help them get away. Definitely one of the best horror-in-a-theater experiences of recent years. Maybe the best.
But scratch that. Now that he’s directed his version of ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, we know for a fact that Marshall is no god damn John Carpenter. Judging by this he’s not even Rick Rosenthal (guy who directed HALLOWEEN II but got fired and reshot by Carpenter). The real Carpenter has been trying to ape Howard Hawks his whole career, but in the process he created a unique and recognizable JOHN CARPENTER STYLE. His own feel, sound, look, sense of humor, type of story. And over in Australia George Miller created his own style. Now Marshall takes the subject of one film from each, crunches them together divorced of their original style, plugs them in and hopes they’ll still work. And for his next movie he says he might do his version of an INDIANA JONES movie. Instead of his version of a movie. So I guess we can forget about him blazing new trails in the near future.
So the big picture’s not lookin good. But what about the movie on its own merits? It’s kind of dumb to criticize a movie like this for being derivative. How would you make a completely original cross between ROAD WARRIOR and ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK? And I’m the one always defending the legitimacy of formula in action movies, comparing it to the traditional structure of a blues song. So I can’t act like originality is the number one thing to strive for.
But there are two things you should strive for in a good ripoff, and you have to strive for at least one of them if you want to be watchable:
- Put your own spin on it. Make it your own. Carpenter said he based ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 on RIO BRAVO, but clearly he ended up with a John Carpenter movie. Some people point out similarities between HALLOWEEN and BLACK CHRISTMAS, but it has its own style and feel that for most people surpasses BLACK CHRISTMAS. Even 28 DAYS LATER – I’m not a huge fan, but the handheld DV shakycam approach is very consistent and distances it from the two Romero movies most of its ideas are clearly lifted from. It becomes its own movie.
- Execute it well. There are slasher movies, vigilante movies and DIE HARD riffs that don’t have an ounce of originality but that are put together cleverly enough – sometimes just profesionally enough – to be fun to watch. That’s all I ask.
But I think DOOMSDAY fails in both categories. They add so little to the two movies they’re homaging it gets kind of sad. They try to have everything from ROAD WARRIOR: mohawks, scary retro-fitted vehicles, a guy harnessed to a vehicle, a guy who introduces the leader on a microphone as if he’s “The Ayatollah of Rocknrolla,” two competing tribes, a fortified settlement for the less-punk apocalyptians, high speed car chase combat involving a police car. But what do they add to this to make it different from ROAD WARRIOR? Mostly ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK. Cynical, apolitical badass with eyepatch and sleeveless black shirt sent into walled off hellhole on a government mission. Most of how DOOMSDAY differentiates itself from the two originals is just by not being as good. It’s not as cool, not done as well, not as dedicated to its fantasy world. It’s less outlandish but not more believable. The hero is less iconic but not more real or complex.
So that’s #1. #2 is where we get to the doomsday for action movies.
If you think today’s crop of horror directors is sad just take a look at the action directors. Most of the old masters like Woo and McTiernan have lost it. Cameron hasn’t made an action movie in about 15 years, Carpenter’s last one sucked, Miller has had to put his great chase scenes into animal movies and comic book fundamentalists are trying to stop him from doing a super hero movie. Friedkin still had it as of 2003, but who knows if he’ll do another action movie. Walter Hill seems mostly retired, Frankenheimer is dead. I guess I shouldn’t write off Korea, Hong Kong, Japan, Thailand and France, they’ve got some good stuff coming out. But who do we have making Hollywood action movies who still believes in good old fashioned visual storytelling? All we have is disciples of the shaking camera and the farting Avid. If you ask me Paul Greengrass has taken that shakycam style as far as it’s gonna go, and the result of that has nothing on a HARD BOILED, are you fucking kidding me? Spielberg is the one guy still left with consistently great action through visual storytelling, but he’s never been interested in the straightup action I want to see.
I mean the state of action is so bad that I was having this discussion with a buddy recently and we decided to count David Cronenberg as an “action director” just so we had somebody to be proud of. And I guess I could count Tarantino. KILL BILL had some of my favorite fight scenes ever, and DEATH PROOF had classic car chases. So there’s our two greatest action directors of the 2000s, two guys who are not interested in being action directors.
And then there’s Marshall. When you fail #1, it amplifies #2. If you do a straightup aping of ROAD WARRIOR, are we supposed to watch it and not compare what you’re doing to one of the best action movies ever made? Because I couldn’t help but notice these chases were not as good as the ones they were rehashing, and not even on as big of a scale. But the chases are better than the fights. There’s a sword duel in this movie where I’m pretty sure every single move in the entire scene gets a separate shot. What, you couldn’t find stuntpeople who could swing the sword twice without stopping to rest?
I know I sound like a broken record (hey kids a record is a type of round listening device made of black plastic which we used in the old days to listen to music and “broken” meant that some poor sucker had dropped it and created a scratch which caused the needle to skip and play the same part over and over again) but FOR FUCK’S SAKE ACTION DIRECTORS – ACTION IS SUPPOSED TO BE ABOUT ACTION. That’s why they call it action. Just sit down, shut the fuck up and let some people fight. If you can’t choreograph a good fight then hire somebody who can, and then trust that it will look good if you allow the audience to see it. If we survive DOOMSDAY I hope that we as a society will come together in peace and unity and learn to show the actor’s faces when they’re fighting and make it so you know which characters are involved in the fights and what they are doing to each other. Is that too much to ask? All we are saying is give comprehensibility a chance.
But before you even get to the action the story itself is uninvolving. That’s the biggest problem with the movie and the one I have the hardest time defining. The pre-mission setup is way too long and uninteresting but I kept telling myself “Don’t worry, once they get inside it will get good.” But it didn’t so then I was telling myself “When those punk guys show up it’ll be cool” but that was poor judgment on my part. By the time the movie’s 2/3 over I’m thinking “Maybe the car chases will be good?” It’s a rare and sad thing for me when a movie fails to hook me for its entire running time. I honestly considered going home to do something else. I can’t remember the last time I thought of doing that.
Maybe the problem is that they just kind of assume you’ll dig these characters even if they don’t set them up very well or give them much to do. I couldn’t stop thinking of the lead character Cindy Plissken (just kidding – I have no idea what her name was though, check IMDb if you must) as Posh Spice in a half-assed last minute Halloween costume of Snake Plissken. She didn’t have a sleeveless shirt so she borrowed a tank top from Sporty. She’s the closest thing to a memorable character in the movie but she just doesn’t cut it. Her attitude isn’t bad enough, she doesn’t have any funny oneliners, her badass maneuvers are few and far between, when she gets locked up she stands around not trying to escape for way too long to be taken as a serious threat. The ladies in THE DESCENT weren’t as cartoonish yet they were more convincingly tough.
The movie also undermines her by making her part of a team, but then the team doesn’t do much. In a nod to the movie’s unoriginality that is in itself unoriginal* Marshall names two characters Miller and Carpenter, but then you never really know anything about those guys or remember what they look like. (I guess you sort of have to have that though, a way of saying “hey guys, I’m not trying to trick you, this is so you know I know that you know I’m ripping these guys off.”)
The aspects of the movie that are good are all superficial. They did a good job applying bones to motorcycles and buses, for example. The main character had a removable glass eye with a camera in it, that was kind of cool and Snake didn’t have that. I don’t know man, I want to say something nice about the movie for all my readers who liked it, but I kind of feel like I listened to my friend’s song and I’m having a hard time thinking of a way to compliment it without being totally full of shit. “Was that you on rhythm guitar? I really liked the rhythm guitar.”
The one section of the movie that is not ROAD WARRIOR or ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK is when they go into the woods and some knights on horses find them and bring them to a castle. For a second I got excited because it is in fact a cool idea – in Europe they have castles, so apocalypse survivors can use them for shelter. Might work better than a shopping mall. But Marshall made the decision that all the characters living there dress and behave as if they are medeival. Kind of a funny idea at first but since the movie is so uninvolving my mind started to wander and I realized that it if they brought their modern scavenged supplies into the castle it would not only be more believable, it would be more interesting to watch. Like if the punks lived in the castle, or at least battled the guys in the castle, that would be cool. Instead they segregate those lifestyles so we just get a section of the movie that looks like some XENA-style medeival show that would be on syndicated TV on weekend afternoons. The only thing funny they do is show a plaque that says “Gift Shop” in one shot.
I knew this movie could go either way, but I never imagined I would be completely bored from the first minute to the last. I know that good movies have not been un-invented, so I expect something better than this, especially from a director whose already contributed positively to the world. Just because other people look down on these genres that I love doesn’t mean I can’t expect quality.
The saddest part is that this is the one god damn fantasy type movie that doesn’t have a chosen one in it. If you’re gonna be doomsday for action and horror you should at least have a prophecy of a chosen one who will come and nail all the cameras into the ground and tell them to keep the film rolling. Carve him into stone or paint him on a scroll. We need a prophecy so there’s something to look forward to.
* a few movies with characters named after horror directors:
BLOODMYTH (Carpenter, Corman, Barker)
THE DEAD NEXT DOOR (Raimi, Commander Carpenter)
DEATH MACHINE (Dante, Carpenter, Raimi, Scott Ridley)
FINAL DESTINATION (Browning, Lewton, Hitchcock, Murnau, Dreyer, Waggner)
FINAL DESTINATION 2 (Carpenter, Corman)
FINAL DESTINATION 3 (Romero, Ulmer, Freund, Wise, Dreyer, Christensen, Polanski)
HACK! (Mr. Carpenter, Mr. Argento)
THE HOWLING (Waggner, Fred Francis)
JASON GOES TO HELL (Sheriff Ed Landis)
NIGHT HUNTER (Detective Browning, Curt Argento, Detective Hooper, Sangster, Ulmer, Castle)
NIGHT OF THE CREEPS (Romero, Hooper, Cronenberg, Cameron, Landis, Raimi)
WAXWORK II (Polansky, Romero, Argento, Scott, Hitchcock)
ZOMBIE BLOODBATH (Bookwalter, Romero, Fulci, Argento, Raimi)
Maybe it’s time to put this tradition on ice for a while is what I’m saying.
P.S. The punks in this are cannibals, so they thought it was funny to play the song “Good Thing” by the ’80s pop group Fine Young Cannibals. Tobe Hooper already thought of this joke 22 years ago when he showed a Fine Young Cannibals poster in TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.