August 21, 1998
is when BLADE came out and changed both cinema and humanity forever. But I already wrote the definitive review of that so here I am reviewing DEAD MAN ON CAMPUS.
It turns out maybe the comedies that come out in August are not essential to a summer movie retrospective. That’s a lesson I’m learning. I actually saw DEAD MAN ON CAMPUS at the time, but I realize now that I was conflating my memory of it with IDLE HANDS. I knew it was a different movie, but I thought it was another supernatural teen horror comedy. It was about half an hour in before I realized oh shit, he’s not gonna turn into a zombie. This is that movie where they find out their college has an obscure rule that if your roommate commits suicide then they have to give you straight As (just go with it) so they try to find an unstable roommate and push him to the brink. The kind of movie that should just have a disclaimer and a 1-800 number running across the screen throughout like a watermark on a critic’s screener.
Josh (Tom Everett Scott, who really did do a supernatural horror comedy – AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN PARIS) is the hard studying everydude who moves into a dorm to find that one of his roommates is a mischievous party animal rich kid who owns a bong the size of a didgeridoo. That’s Cooper, played by Mark-Paul Gosselaar, who had already graduated from college in Saved By the Bell, but here his hair is dyed dark, so it’s a total career reinvention in my opinion. (Seriously though, he is good at playing this type of character and maybe could’ve become a movie star if this was a good movie.) Cooper is very distracting to Josh because his philosophy is “college is our last chance to go crazy,” and his approach to bad grades is “just laugh because they’re silly.”
Josh is very laid back and reasonable, portrayed as slightly dumb, but in a lovable way. He gives many variations on this smile:
When he meets a girl who likes him named Rachel (Poppy Montgomery, MAGIC BEYOND WORDS: THE J.K. ROWLING STORY) and gets laid, all the sudden he realizes that college is fun, and the next thing you know he’s at risk of losing his scholarship. Then they find out about that suicide rule, apparently a popular urban legend (as well as the subject of a serious thriller called DEAD MAN’S CURVE that played Sundance before this, but got changed to THE CURVE by the time it was a cable movie).
So Josh and Cooper scheme to find a roommate with a low life expectancy. The school conveniently has a group for severely psychologically troubled students, and they fake friendships with them. Lochlyn Munro (Texas Slim from UNFORGIVEN, Deputy Stubbs from FREDDY VS. JASON) has fun playing a psychotic frat boy who involves them in a high speed chase and police shootout and accidentally lights Rachel’s friend Lucy (Alyson Hannigan, after starting Buffy the Vampire Slayer but before AMERICAN PIE)’s hair on fire. Buckley (Randy Pearlstein, co-writer of CABIN FEVER) is a guy who has posters of himself on his wall and believes that Bill Gates is trying to kill him and Kurt Cobain, who is still alive. Matt (Corey Page, DEVIL’S PREY) is a gloomy musician who’s exposed as a poser when they catch him laughing at a sitcom.
There’s lots of lying and trickery, spying, theft, disguises. There’s a part after they break into a school building to steal files and then escape from security where they excitedly yell “VAN DAMME!” to each other. I enjoyed this because Scott probly wouldn’t have guessed that 15 years later he’d be the hero of an action movie (ENEMIES CLOSER) with the actual Van Damme playing the villain.
Rachel is kind of an unfortunate character because she immediately likes Josh and then he ignores her and acts like an idiot for the whole movie and you know she’s gonna take way too long to cut him off and then let him win her back, because that’s what that character always does in this story. She’s a writer and he promises to read her story and then doesn’t – the “dad doesn’t make it to the recital” of negligent boyfriend moves.
I do respect that Rachel drinks and has sex on the first date and it doesn’t at all negate the responsible good girl vibe she gives off. I have a complaint though: she’s part of this tight knit trio of friends with Lucy and Kristin (Mari Morrow, TODAY YOU DIE, HOUSE PARTY 4), but she and Kristin both go off with boys immediately after Lucy pukes over the side of a bridge from drinking too much. Not staying to look after her does not ring true for the friendship depicted and I suspect it is a serious violation of all known girl codes.
By the way, like most big teen movies, they manage to land some up-and-comers in the cast who became a bigger deal later. Most notable in my opinion would be Jason Segel and Linda Cardellini (KILL THE IRISHMAN) shortly before they starred in Freaks & Geeks together. It’s Segel’s second movie – remember, he had a bit part as “Watermelon Guy” in CAN’T HARDLY WAIT – but here it’s a pretty funny part as an intensely horny roommate. Cardellini, who had already been in GOOD BURGER and several TV shows, has a less rewarding part as the girl he falls in instant lust with because she also went to a Catholic school.
I’m not trying to judge the values of movies from the past, but it’s interesting how these old comedies can sometimes measure our progress as a society. Many of these ’98 movies I’ve been watching show the biggest change in the area of gay jokes, so I was ready for some light homophobia in the scene where Josh and Cooper’s neighbors see them spying, Cooper tackles Josh to the ground to try to hide, but they still see them, so he asks “Can we have some privacy, please?” It becomes a running gag that those guys think they’re gay. But ultimately I think the joke turns out to be fine because #1, Josh and Cooper don’t act grossed out or embarrassed by the misunderstanding, and #2 the neighbors are supportive of them and call them “a cute couple.” It’s different from now, because the joke comes from expecting everybody to be homophobic and being surprised if they’re not. But it seems to come from a good place and it’s definitely progressive compared to CAN’T HARDLY WAIT, where somebody calling the asshole character a gay slur was treated as a righteous comeuppance.
But I don’t think modern audiences would be as okay with the very premise of the movie. Of course Josh eventually feels sympathy for suicidal people and realizes that what they’re doing is wrong. But I don’t think people would enjoy the fun it’s having with mental illness.
To me the part that’s in the poorest taste is when Cooper volunteers at a suicide hotline so he can answer when their roommates call and give bad advice. At first he grabs the phone from the woman in charge and takes the call against her objection – I’m not sure why she then lets him get away with it and continue coming in as a volunteer. Or why she doesn’t seem to hear the horrible things he’s saying on the phone right near her desk.
I think one reason this rubs me the wrong way is because I’ve read that Ted Bundy, when he was in college, also volunteered at a suicide hotline for sicko purposes. They later found out that when he stayed by himself for the night shift he would just turn the phones off. Not that funny, in my opinion.
Which is kind of my feeling about the movie overall, but I didn’t hate it because it at least captures a little something sincere about friendship – these two guys who are very different from each other going through some dumb shit together and getting to know each other on a different level. And I don’t think it’s wrong for teen movies to fuck around with dark and touchy subjects. I would never wave a finger at HEATHERS.
DEAD MAN ON CAMPUS is actually an MTV Production. I had kinda forgot about seeing that moon man logo before movies back then. This was the company’s third film, following JOE’S APARTMENT and BEAVIS AND BUTTHEAD DO AMERICA, preceding VARSITY BLUES and 200 CIGARETTES. They actually produced one movie that’s in the Criterion Collection: ELECTION, and many others that I forgot or never knew they were involved in, including POOTIE TANG, BETTER LUCK TOMORROW, HUSTLE & FLOW, THE FOOT FIST WAY and FOOTLOOSE.
Does MTV’s involvement mean the music is gonna be hipper than other ’98 pictures, or some kind of TRL shit? Well, the soundtrack is executive produced by the Dust Brothers, genius producers of Paul’s Boutique and soundtrack composers of FIGHT CLUB, but it’s not in that same vein. You do get to hear a little bit of Dr. Octagon’s “Bear Witness” playing from one of the dorms. Bands include Soul Coughing, The Muffs, Nashville Pussy, Blur, Elastica, and, uh, Creed. I really thought they would avoid playing anything that could also be in BASEKETBALL, but then they used a Squirrel Nut Zippers song.
The script seems to be by a bunch of future indie cinema guys. The story is credited to Anthony Abrams & Adam Larson Broder (directors of PUMPKIN), screenplay by Michael Traeger (writer/director of THE AMATEURS) and Mike White (his first credit – then he did CHUCK & BUCK, ORANGE COUNTY, THE GOOD GIRL, SCHOOL OF ROCK, BEATRIZ AT DINNER, etc. [holy shit, I did not know he worked on THE EMOJI MOVIE and PITCH PERFECT 3]).
It was the only theatrical feature for director Alan Cohn, whose biggest claim to fame is 24 episodes of The Man Show. Or composing the theme song to The Wayans Bros.
DEAD MAN ON CAMPUS opened at #6, below BLADE, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY, HOW STELLA GOT HER GROOVE BACK and SNAKE EYES, all movies that are better and better remembered. (I guess sometimes box office and level of quality do correspond.) It did better than WRONGFULLY ACCUSED, at least. In the end it only made about a million dollars more than its budget, and at least one of the people who did bother to see it misremembered it as a MY BOYFRIEND’S BACK type deal.
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.