I think everyone hates this one. I liked it.
More specifically I like the Hitchcock and the horror/suspense sequences that are clearly inspired by him, I like the ideas and I don't have a problem with the acting. As horror, it's quite good. I enjoyed it. Unfortunately these ingredients are wrapped in a movie that's tedious and uninteresting.
The one-line description is "Urban Legends vs. Hitchcock vs. film school".
All of these, on their own, have potential. I'm dubious about the idea of a film about film school, especially given the evidence of today's movie, but I can't say the idea's inherently worthless. Unfortunately put them together and you've got a bit of a pile-up. Taking them in order...
1. URBAN LEGENDS
Urban Legends is a horror franchise that had a reasonably successful first film with Robert Englund in it, made a bit less money with this sequel and then went straight-to-DVD for the third. There's even approximately a fourth film, originally to be called Urban Legends: Goldfield Murders, but released under the title Ghosts of Goldfield when Sony sold the franchise rights and then inconveniently bought them back.
I love this idea! I'm imagining something a bit like an EC Comics horror anthology, with lots of juicy stories that get to go for the jugular with gross kitsch, but also have a mexatextual twist. Imagine the Final Destination
series, but with even funnier set-pieces. The only way to make it even better would be to hire John Waters as director, to add a bit of bad taste into the horror. Richard Gere and the gerbil! Mr Rogers was a marine sniper!
Unfortunately the problem here is that urban legends, despite what you'd think, aren't very famous. I didn't recognise any of the stories in this film, despite the fact that some were on the first "top 25 urban legends" website I googled. "Humans Can Lick, Too", for instance. That's here, for instance. I didn't recognise it. This means that the movie has to waste a lot of energy flagging up its urban legends for the ignorant (e.g. me) and you'll get online critics bashing the film for not having enough urban legend kills. There's one nasty scene that everyone likes (the kidney and the ice bath), but ironically that was only added at the last minute because test audiences demanded more gore. You'll notice that the kidnapped character is never referred to throughout the rest of the movie.
So if you're looking for the schlock-fest you'd be expecting from the title... sorry. Of course it does have violence and killings, but its divided attention means it's not giving itself to this as wholeheartedly as it might have done.
It's doing Hitchcock. It's not as determined and critically respectable in this as Zemeckis's attempt the same year with What Lies Beneath
, but one thing it does that Zemeckis doesn't is bring it up in dialogue. It's a child of 1990s horror, you see, with 'Scream'
and Kevin Williamson. There were three slasher movies in 2000 about a film within a film: this, Scream 3
and an Australian horror called Cut, which has Kylie Minogue in it. This era was all about being self-aware and drawing attention to what you were doing, which in this case gives rise to both the movie school setting and the Hitchcock homage.
At one point, a lecturer (Hart Bochner) discusses the heroine (Jennifer Morrison)'s idea for a horror film and says that Hitchcock's themes would work well in it. She's making a film called Urban Legends, of course. What's more, the film then goes on to do exactly these ideas and themes, most bravely when it kills a character in the world's easiest-to-retcon suicide ("he blew his own head off!") and then has the same actor show up claiming to be his own twin brother. Did he really have a brother? Is Morrison going insane? This is classic Hitchcock, but you can see how this kind of playfulness won't have gone down well with a slasher audience.
I also think the scary scenes are trying to be Hitchcock-inspired. What's more, this works. They're not genre-busting, but they're pretty good and far more effective than the rest of the film deserves. What stops people realising is that "rest of the film" bit.
All this I liked too, even if it's arguably damaging the movie by being wildly at variance with anything you'd imagine based on urban legends. The Hitchcock homages were my favourite thing about Who Lies Beneath and I found them interesting here too, albeit clearly not in the same league. It certainly gives the film more meat than it would otherwise have had. If nothing else, you've got to love their cheeky use of the theme music from Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
3. FILM SCHOOL
This movie has a very loud setting, by which I mean it overwhelms everything else. The cast breathe, eat and sleep their little home-made movies. They think about nothing else. They flounce off on ego trips and make you want them dead. "You stole my fucking genre!" This allows a lot of metatextual commentary, but unfortunately at the price of characters you don't care about in a pointless story. Gee, will Morrison get to make her movie? Who cares?
Sometimes this paradoxically covers the film's sloppy plotting. The killer's motive is silly, but so is everything and everyone. It fits. However I haven't even started yet on the plot holes. When Morrison wants Loretta Devine to play her security videos and see a killing take place, why does she beg a refusal by specifying some time in the past hour? She knows exactly when she heard the scream: the stroke of midnight. Why doesn't she tell the police, even when directly asked? (Idiot.) The "film brat" revelation is pointless, never referred to again except in the killer's final speech and it wasn't necessary there either. Why does Morrison blame Matthew Davis for not preventing the killings? Okay, yes, she's being emotional, but it's still stupid. There are "it's just a film" twists (twice) and a dream sequence. Yeesh.
What's more, that's me bashing the script despite not minding the twin brother. However I hurt my brain by thinking too hard about Loretta Devine's character. We're told that she was previously involved in another chain of urban legend killings, which sounds so implausible that it must surely be a clue... unless maybe she's just a returning character from the previous film?
However that said, there's a lot here to like in their use of "a film within a film". The contrast between reality and fiction is specifically addressing film and TV, with security cameras, movie reels and a blurring of the usual lines between them. People criticise a killing as if it's fictional. "Not enough blood." Plot points depend on hearing a real scream over the sound of staged screams. There's also some fun juxtaposition at the end, as the characters find themselves walking across movie sets with aliens on a Star Trek spaceship, or a Dracula-style cemetery with spooky trees and tombstones. I genuinely like all the layers in this, even if the results are regrettable when it comes to giving a damn about the plot.
The cast's quite good. Morrison is likeable, while furthermore you'll also see Eva Mendes from before she got famous. Her career here is still at the early stage of Children of the Corn V: Fields of Terror, but she's good enough that the director rewrote to expand her screen time. Meanwhile Hart Bochner is quite good if you hang around to find out, while the two make-up nerds are amusing comic relief.
Worst thing in the movie: the laughable acting in the student films. I don't care if that's what student films really look like. It's still annoying.
Overall: cheeky and more intelligent than it's generally taken for. It's been fashionable for years to decry the 'Scream'
-inspired 1990s tradition of smart-alec horror, but I think it's refreshing to have a period when horror was trying to be a bit more witty and thoughtful, even if this produced one of the all-time worst decades for cinematic horror. I liked the Hitchcock homages, especially since it's alongside a love of Pam Grier blaxploitation. However on the downside, this is yet another much-hated slasher film with a story full of plot holes and a heroine with a dull backstory who never goes to the police. The suspense sequences are quite good, but the actual kills are often lacklustre. It also has a brief sex scene, but doesn't show tits. You'll like this one about as much as you want to like it, I think.
"You're going to hell for doubting George Lucas."