Movies: May 2010 Archives

"Cult films don't make money." - BILL LANGE, producer of Massacre at Central High

"Laugh-a while you can, monkey-boy." - DR. EMILIO LIZARDO, eccentric Italian physicist possessed by Lord John Whorphin, an evil Red Lectroid from Planet 10

When I suggested "Cult on Arrival" month I had but one film in mind and that was 1984's The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, a fast-paced, effects-laden science fiction extravaganza that had the potential to kick off a franchise but fizzled at the box office. Made by a first-time producer-director (W.D. Richter, who cut his teeth as a screenwriter on films like Peter Bogdanovich's Nickelodeon, which he co-wrote with the director, and the late-'70s adaptations of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Dracula) and a relatively unknown screenwriter (Earl Mac Rauch, whose only prior credits were the little-loved urban thriller A Stranger is Watching and Martin Scorsese's sprawling musical New York, New York), Buckaroo Banzai was always going to be a hard sell, but you can tell that they made the film for the love of it, not because they thought they were going to get rich off it. (Of course, if it had been a runaway success, I don't believe they would have turned those riches down.)

The other group of people that Richter and Rauch arguably made the film for were the sci-fi, fantasy and comic book geeks who were in the habit of anointing whatever blockbusters Hollywood threw their way and could presumably be counted to spread the word about their film's idiosyncratic hero, a world-renowned neurosurgeon, rocket scientist and rock star who just so happened to also have his own comic book (at least in the world of the film). And so the studio went directly to the fans, showed them the trailer, handed out Buckaroo Banzai headbands (one of which I was given by a college friend) and did whatever they could to try to drum up interest in the film. These tactics drew the ire of notable crank Harlan Ellison, who used his January 1985 column in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction to decry the "billion dollars' worth of promotional hype such as Big Brother-style rallies at sf conventions" being used to sell what he called "this village idiot of a movie." Needless to say, he was not impressed with it.

Luckily, I was already an avowed fan of Buckaroo Banzai, having seen it many times on cable, by the time I read Ellison's withering four-paragraph dismissal of it in his 1989 collection Harlan Ellison's Watching, so I've never let it influence my opinion of the film. Then again, within its pages Ellison also derides Star Wars, John Carpenter's The Thing, Gremlins ("it is a corrupt thing, vicious at its core"), The Last Starfighter, Back to the Future, Robocop ("a film that struck me as being made by, and for, savages and ghouls") and Spaceballs -- all of which I have varying degrees of affection for -- so I know to take his criticisms with the proper amount of seasoning. Then again, he also has high praise for an obscure 1973 film called Slither, which just so happened to be Richter's screenwriting debut, calling it "the world's longest, funniest Polack joke." And he champions Big Trouble in Little China, which Richter also had a hand in, so it's clear he doesn't prejudge a film one way or the other based on who made it (although he never does seem to have a kind word for Brian De Palma).

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"It was hoped that Shock Treatment would repeat the success of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. And I think in hindsight that what you realize is that you can't create a cult. Cults happen organically. An audience finds a movie, embraces it, and makes it into a cult." - JOHN GOLDSTONE, producer

When a Hollywood movie is released to popular acclaim and financial success, the next step is clear: give the audience more of the same, only with the volume turned up, as soon as possible. It helps, of course, if the first movie belongs to an easily-identifiable category (comedy, action, horror) and leaves its most popular characters alive and ready for further adventures at the end. But how do you follow up an unexpected, late-blooming hit like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, a bizarre, cross-genre mishmash which ends with the death of its central and most popular character, the transvestite alien mad scientist Dr. Frank-N-Furter (played by Tim Curry)? Such was the question plaguing the executives at 20th Century Fox back in 1979 in the wake of Rocky Horror's highly unlikely reversal of fortune. British writer/actor Richard O'Brien's oddball 1972 stage musical The Rocky Horror Show had been a hit in London and Los Angeles, but an attempt to bring the show to Broadway had flopped by the time Fox's film adaptation limped into theaters in the fall of 1975. It looked like another pop culture fad had come and gone, but amazingly the movie -- about a square American couple, Brad and Janet, who undergo a night of debauchery in the Gothic castle of Dr. Frank-N-Furter -- somehow became the object of intense adulation among its hardcore fans, who used the film as the center of a truly unique multimedia phenomenon. Weekly showings of RHPS incorporated live performance, audience participation, and the filmed image. Complicating matters further, as far as a sequel was concerned, the film's following was at least partially ironic: the tradition of yelling "callbacks" at the screen started as a form of heckling during the many awkward pauses in the dialogue. But, still, the demand for more Rocky was definitely there, and so O'Brien got to work on a sequel to his famous/infamous creation.

The initial result of O'Brien's labors was a screenplay called Rocky Horror Shows His Heels, conceived as a direct sequel to the first film in which Dr. Frank-N-Furter rises from the grave, Janet gives birth to his half-alien baby, and Brad reveals himself to be homosexual. This script, accompanied by a demo tape of new songs, apparently did not instill much confidence in the Fox brass, so O'Brien set about reworking the project with Jim Sharman, the director and co-writer of the original Rocky Horror film. Eventually, through a series of rewrites, Heels mutated into something called The Brad & Janet Show, which in turn became what we now know as Shock Treatment. Along the way, all three principals from the first film -- Tim Curry, Barry Bostwick, and Susan Sarandon -- either became unavailable or backed out, and the entire project had to be reconceived on a much-smaller budget following an actor's guild strike. What had been planned as a location shoot in Dallas, Texas would now be filmed entirely within a British soundstage. The resulting film came out in 1981, six long years after the first, and was quickly rejected by the Rocky Horror cultists, who felt they were being manipulated by the Fox publicity machine. An attempt to show the film at New York's Waverly Theater, birthplace of the Rocky Horror cult, proved disastrous and led to a scathing editorial in the Village Voice entitled "Mock Rocky," deriding this prefabricated attempt to create another Rocky Horror. Outsiders seemingly had no interest in the film either, and it vanished into home video obscurity. And that is pretty much where Shock Treatment's reputation lies today. When the film is mentioned at all nowadays, it is used as a cautionary example of why a studio should never, ever try to intentionally create a so-called "cult" movie. The history of Shock Treatment, one would be tempted to say, has been written. Its fate is sealed. The verdict is in, and it's guilty. Right?

Well, possibly. But every defendant is entitled to the benefit of counsel, right? That's where I step in.

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This page is an archive of entries in the Movies category from May 2010.

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