Retrospective: Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (1994)

Welcome back to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre retrospective! In today’s entry we’re going to be looking at the fourth film in the franchise, Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation! Normally I would try to avoid talking about the quality of a film too much until I get to the actual analysis, but I feel like I need to be a little more upfront with The Next Generation than usual. As of the time of writing, this film is ranked #41 on the IMDb Bottom 100 alongside such prestigious contemporaries as Birdemic, Troll 2 and half of Uwe Boll’s early catalogue. Yikes. However, the film has received some reappraisal since its release and has its defenders, some even saying it’s one of the best Chainsaw sequels. Which side did I fall on? Well, you’ll have to read on to find out…

Y’know what? I really like this poster, it’s super intriguing. Long before I watched the film, this poster had always made me wondering about what it had to do with the movie? Like, was Renee Zellweger going to become a female Leatherface? Was that what “The Next Generation” was referring to? Plus that skin mask is legitimately creepy here.

PRODUCTION
When Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III failed to scare up big business, New Line Cinema shelved any further sequels that they had planned. As a result, the rights for the film reverted back to Kim Henkel, the writer and co-creator of the original 1974 film. That said, in part due to the shady financing of the original film, the rights for this franchise are quite complicated and required years of litigation to sort out properly. At the time of The Next Generationa trustee for the owners of the original film, Chuck Grigson, had a slice of the rights and had to be paid and promised a cut of the profits before Henkel could have a stab at the franchise.

For the production portion of this retrospective, I was able to find cast interviews and a documentary of the making of the film with first-hand footage which will inform most of my information and assumptions about the production, unless otherwise specified. Perhaps disappointed with the direction the sequels had gone, Henkel decided to go about making his own entry in the franchise, titling it The Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. In the documentary, Kim Henkel implies that he never really understood why the original Chainsaw Massacre resonated with people so much; he says that it looks to him like a backyard film made by kids and that its appeal is that people like watching other people get brutalized. Special effects and stunts crew member J. M. Logan states that Kim Henkel said that The Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre “was what he wanted the original Chainsaw to be. He’d been working on it ever since. This is the movie he wanted to make without Tobe’s influence. This was his pure vision.” The film was made on a low budget, on location in Texas with local cast and crew. It was produced by a wealthy lawyer friend of Henkel’s named Robert Kuhn, one of the investors for the original Chainsaw and one of the fellow rightsholders for the franchise. J. M. Logan estimates that the budget was in the neighbourhood of a couple hundred thousand dollars and everything was done as basically and cheaply as possible. Along with that came the creative freedom that Henkel had wanted and which Chainsaw sequels had thus far been denied. In many ways, filming tended to mirror the production of the original Chainsaw: shot on a gruelling schedule to avoid extra expenses and with the safety of the people involved being a questionable concern. The film was almost entirely shot at night in hot, humid weather with little in the way of amenities for cast and crew.

In retrospect, the cast was the most notable aspect of the film and which would dominate any discussion surrounding The Next Generation. Renée Zellweger was cast in the lead heroine role as Jenny, while Matthew McConaughey was cast as the main villain, Vilmer. Both were on the cusp of super-stardom and this was their first major leading role in a film. They, along with most of the other cast, were local Texan actors and for many of them, Chainsaw was one of their first films. Among the film’s heroes, Lisa Marie Newmayer was cast as Heather, Tyler Cone as Barry and John Harrison as Sean. Among the villains, Tonie Perenskie was cast as Darla, Joe Stevens as W.E. Slaughter and James Gale as Rothman. This film’s Leatherface (referred to only as “Leather” by the characters) was played by Robert Jacks.

After receiving positive reviews at a premiere screening at South By Southwest (which Matthew McConaughey reportedly attended), Columbia Pictures signed a distribution deal for the film. However, as Zellweger and McConaughey’s careers started to take off, Columbia pushed the film’s release back to try to take advantage of their newfound stardom (which is pretty common with small budget films like this, such as what House at the End of the Street did when Jennifer Lawrence‘s career began to take off). However, as they did so, an agent for Zellweger or McConaughey put pressure on Columbia Pictures to not release the film in order to prevent it from damaging their client’s career. Apparently this worked, because the film’s release was delayed further, which caused Henkel and Kuhn to sue Columbia for failing to follow through on their distribution deal. Then, to make matters worse, Chuck Grigson went and sued both sides for not delivering on the terms set in the deal he had signed with Henkel in order to get the rights. Tyler Cone and Robert Jacks have gone on record stating that they believed that Zellweger’s agent was behind this further delay, but considering that McConaughey is the only one named in the legal case Grigson made regarding the estoppel, it would seem to me that it was his agent who was responsible. In either case, neither Zellweger or McConaughey have disassociated themselves from the film or even really had bad words to say about it. After being reedited by the studio and being renamed Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation, the film was finally released on August 29, 1997 in only 23 theatres in the US, grossing $185,989 and being critically panned.

PLOT SYNOPSIS
The film opens at a Texan prom. Heather finds her boyfriend, Barry, kissing another girl. She leaves in a huff and gets into Barry’s father’s car and speeds away as Barry get in with her and tries to console her. His efforts are thwarted by their friends, Jenny and Sean, who were apparently hiding in the back seats doing drugs this whole time. Heather’s manic driving gets the group into two accidents, the second of which wrecks the vehicle and leaves another motorist badly injured. Heather, Barry and Jenny go to find a service station while Sean stays with the injured motorist. The group finds a woman named Darla at a real estate office who calls for a man named Vilmer who has a tow truck. However, when Vilmer arrives, he breaks the injured motorist’s neck and then repeatedly runs over Sean with his truck.

Barry, Heather and Jenny try to get back to Sean, but somehow manage to get separated. Barry and Heather come across a house and try to find someone who can drive them out, but Barry gets held at gunpoint by W.E. Slaughter and Heather gets captured by Leather and stuffed in a meat freezer. When Barry goes inside the house to try to find Heather, Leather bludgeons him to death and then hangs Heather on a meat hook.

Meanwhile, the now-lost Jenny is picked up by Vilmer, but she quickly realizes that he’s insane, a fact which is confirmed when she sees Sean’s body in the back of the truck. She jumps from the truck and flees into the woods, but is pursued by Leather with a chainsaw. He chases her through the woods, to the house where Barry was killed and then back to the real estate office where Darla comforts her. This is short-lived though, because soon W.E. arrives and stuffs her in the trunk of Darla’s car. Darla goes to pick up some pizza for the family and then comes across a badly-injured Heather in the middle of the road, having somehow escaped the meat hook.

Vilmer begins taunting Jenny, but Jenny steals a shotgun and nearly escapes. Darla tells Jenny that Vilmer works for the Illuminati, but Jenny doesn’t believe her. Darla then takes Jenny to yet another dinner scene, where Vilmer continues to manically taunt Jenny and Heather. However, when he tells Jenny that Leather wants to wear her face for his new mask, a dark-suited man named Rothman shows up and intimidates Vilmer, telling him that he’s supposed to be showing Jenny the meaning of true horror. When Rothman leaves, a visibly-shaken Vilmer takes Heather and then crushes her head before telling Leather to kill Jenny with a chainsaw. Jenny manages to break free though and flees into the woods with Leather and Vilmer in pursuit.

Jenny manages to come across an RV being driven by an elderly couple and escape with them, but then Vilmer and Leather drive alongside them and the RV crashes. When Vilmer and Leather pursue Jenny on foot, a crop duster swoops down and strikes Vilmer in the back of the head, killing him. Leather is distraught by this and stops as a black car pulls up and rescues Jenny. Rothman is there and apologizes to Jenny for everything that happened, saying that it was supposed to be a spiritual experience before dropping Jenny off at the hospital.

REVIEW
You might be able to tell from that plot description, but Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation is… hoo boy, it’s an experience to say the least. Let’s start with the things that I liked first though. First of all, the references to the original tend to be much more sly than the in-your-face references in Leatherface. By far the best reference was that the camera flashes in the opening scene mirror the flashes illuminating the corpses in the original film, even playing the same sound effect. It was very clever and actually has some purpose for the film as well as it signifies that these kids are going to be corpses before this is all over. Also, the film looks fairly professional, especially considering the low budget. It certainly doesn’t have interesting cinematography or atmospheric lighting (unlike Leatherface), but the film at least looks like it wasn’t shot by Tommy Wiseau (although there’s at least one shot I noticed where the camera is focused on wrong person, leaving the person the shot’s supposed to be focused on somewhat blurry). Oh, and I’ll admit that I grinned like a school kid when Matthew McConaughey walked out and went “ALRIGHT, ALRIGHT, ALRIGHT!” And… uhh… yeah, that’s seriously everything I liked. This movie was so bad that those are the best things that I can come up with to praise it for without reservation.

First of all, let’s talk about that script, because that’s where most of this film’s issues stem from. Seriously, at at least half of the notes that I took when watching this film were some variation of “WTF!?”, because there’s just so much baffling shit in this film. I mean, look no further than the introduction of our heroine, Jenny. She just shows up in the back of the car with Sean, having apparently been lying on the floor for the past several minutes silently as Barry and Heather argued and sped through the roads of Texas. I get that it’s supposed to be a funny moment, but there isn’t really any set-up so you can’t call it a joke, it just makes you go “wait, WTF just happened?” The Next Generation goes in a dark comedy direction like Chainsaw 2 did, but that doesn’t really explain all the insane stuff that happens, or make the comedy particularly good. For example, Darla is portrayed in her introduction as a cartoonish sexual deviant. When a group of kids break the window of her office, her response is to… flash them? Umm, it’s one thing to be an exhibitionist, but is she trying to encourage vandalism against her property as well? Then there’s the most obvious comedic scene in the film, where Darla goes to pick up pizza with Jenny tied up in her trunk. The scene just keeps going on and doesn’t really add anything to the plot, but tries so hard to be funny. The main issue is that this farcial scene just comes out of nowhere, suddenly making Jenny and Darla out to be a couple of oblivious idiots, as if this is a completely different movie. I mean, it’s kind of funny that Jenny just goes with Darla’s threats as long as she pokes some air holes in her bag, and it’s kind of funny that they’re surrounded by tons of people (including clueless cops) at the time. I get that this is probably meant to be a send-up of slasher films, where no one notices these crimes happening around them. However, the scene is so at odds with the tone of the rest of the movie that is just confusing and frustrating to watch. Plus, as I already said, the scene makes our heroine look like a complete idiot, which goes against the actual intent of the film in literally every other scene in the movie.

Then, when the film’s not trying to be funny, it screws up with writing so sloppy that you can scarcely believe that this film was written and directed by a professional screenwriter, let alone one who had considered this a passion project twenty years in the making. First of all there are all of the pointless characters, of which Sean is the most egregious. He’s is implied to be Jenny’s boyfriend and is introduced in a manner that makes you think he’s one of the main characters. Nope, he gets maybe three lines and then gets killed without us knowing a thing about him. How about the motorist who crashes into the group’s car? Nope, he gets left behind and then has his neck snapped the moment we see him again without having learned a thing about him (he’s literally credited as “I’m Not Hurt” after his one line in the film). I could just keep going on and on: there are the cops in the pizza scene, a friend of Heather’s who we meet at the prom, the old couple who pick up Jenny, crash and then are immediately forgotten, etc.

Then there are all the moments in the script that just don’t make any sense and which are just done for convenience’s sake usually. Like, how did Jenny manage to lose Heather and Barry? I get that a truck passed by and Barry and Heather chased it, but they’re on a road and Jenny has the flashlight, I sincerely doubt they could manage to lose each other. Or how about Heather inexplicably conjuring the upper body strength to pull herself off the meathook and then crawl out into the woods without anyone noticing? Or the scene where the film accidentally makes Jenny look like an idiot, because she doesn’t freak out when Darla calls Vilmer again. This comes after having already revealed that Vilmer is the guy who killed Sean, so shouldn’t she have realized that the tow truck driver is the guy who killed him?

Even beyond the script, there’s just so much wrong with this movie. We’ve got a car crash where you can clearly see the stunt driver in one shot and then in the next shot you see I’m Not Hurt with his head smashed against the windshield. You’ve got bad editing which makes it look like Barry, who’s within earshot of Heather, doesn’t even notice her screaming for minutes on end when Leather attacks her. You’ve got Rothman, who just finishes chewing out Vilmer for being a crazy, unhinged dickhead, turn around and then repeatedly lick Jenny’s face (WTF)!?! You’ve got “scares” which consist of people coming across something that isn’t actually scary and then playing loud, jump scare music. These aren’t even used as fake-outs for a real scare – they are the scares. Even when you have moments that are potentially thrilling, such as Leather chasing Jenny through the woods or Vilmer freaking out at the dinner table, these are just weak rip-offs of scenes which were effective in the original Chainsaw.

As for the characters, they are not great. Jenny’s a decent final girl and actually gets some chances to fight back and turn the tables on her tormentors, but Renée Zellweger’s performance is fairly flat and, as I’ve mentioned, sometimes the script just makes her into an idiot for no discernible reason. Then there’s Heather, but I really can’t tell you all that much about her. She seems like a fairly normal, stereotypical teenage girl, but Lisa Marie Newmyer’s performance is not great. Plus, as soon as she gets put onto the meathook her character doesn’t really have any more presence in the film… even though she somehow gets off the meathook, is present for the whole dinner scene, gets set on fire and gets her freaking head crushed. Seriously, she gets put through the wringer in the second half of the film, but she doesn’t really get to react to any of it. Then there’s Barry, who is both a total asshole and an idiot to boot. He’s the kind of character who cheats, lies and insults everyone to get his way, who is always talking up how great he is, and who just constantly does stupid shit (such as calling the guy with a gun on the other side of a flimsy door a “dumbass” after he locks them out of their own home).

As for the minor villains, we have W.E. Slaughter and Darla. W.E.’s played well enough by Joe Stevens, but the character isn’t particularly compelling – he likes to quote literary figures, but that’s about his only quirk of note. Darla, played charmingly by Tonie Perensky, is better and is probably the least-insane of the villains. However, she’s very cartoonishly sexualized and the fact that she spends half of her scenes with Vilmer getting violently abused by him is uncomfortable to say the least.

Moving onto the main villains, we’ve got “Leather” – that’s what this film calls him anyway and I refuse to consider this character the Leatherface we’re familiar with, because holy shit he’s an abomination. Gone is the Leatherface whose twisted motivations you could understand, now he’s just a cartoon who spends every moment of every scene he’s in wailing and screaming like an idiot. I’m not kidding – he screams the entire time he chases Heather, he screams when he bashes Barry, he screams during the entire 5-10 minute sequence where he chases Jenny through the woods… the only time he shuts up is during the dinner scene, but even then he does almost nothing during that entire sequence. It’s incredibly grating to listen to his ceaseless wailing. On a possibly-related note, Kim Henkel plays up Leatherface’s gender ambiguity much more than any other Chainsaw film does. Some people take issue with the idea of Leatherface in drag, but I’m okay with this, personally. Gender ambiguity and cross-dressing has always been a defining aspect of the character, a fact which is often forgotten (or straight-up ignored in the more commercial Chainsaw sequels). I’m not sure if I like the way that Henkel went about playing up this aspect of the character though. According to Henkel, Leather’s “confused sexuality” is “complex and horrifying at the same time”. He also claims that he made the gender ambiguity of the character more upfront compared to the original Chainsaw because “you can’t be comfortable because this is a minor and incidental perversion”… and when you add those two elements together, that sounds a lot like homophobia to me, or at the very least leveraging the homophobia of the audience against itself. That’s why I mention that Leather’s constant wailing might be intended to be playing into flamboyant gay stereotypes, not to mention the fact that the character’s name has been changed to “Leather”. Honestly, I’m not entirely sure how to interpret this. It wouldn’t surprise me if Henkel is intending to parody gay stereotypes by making the biggest gay stereotype he possibly could (complete with a giant, roaring, penetrating phallus-shaped weapon), but I don’t feel like that was the intent, especially considering how the character has absolutely no agency of his own in this film. Making things even more complicated is the fact that actor Robert Jacks was, himself, a homosexual, but I don’t know how much influence he had on Henkel’s decisions about the character.

Even if the portrayal of Leather wasn’t questionable, the mask alone would make this the absolute worst incarnation of the character out there. Good God, there is nothing else in this film which shows how shoestring this film’s budget was than the awful Leatherface masks. They are so rubbery, like a Chinese knock-off of a Michael Myers mask. It looks even worse when Leather dresses up like a woman and actually wears a woman’s skin to achieve the effect – this could have been incredibly horrifying imagery, but it just looks like a bad, rubber Halloween costume. This is all so unfortunate because near the end of this film’s dinner scene, Vilmer claims that Leather wants Jenny because her face will make a great new mask for him. I don’t think Henkel realized it, but that alone is an amazing idea for a whole Chainsaw film. Just imagine that villainous motivation – Leatherface sees someone he thinks is beautiful and he’s chasing them around just to get ahold of their face so he can wear it and be beautiful too. Holy shit that’s a disturbing idea, one which is just a passing reference in this film and which never gets capitalized on. Fuck this movie.

As for Vilmer, he’s a strange case. I think that Matthew McConaughey puts in a legitimately good performance, totally losing himself in the role. However, he actually goes so far with it that it makes the performance distracting in its insanity. I mean, he’s always watchable, but the character is so insane and random that you can’t even begin to fathom what his motivations might be or take him in any way seriously – this is the sort of character who will deepthroat a shotgun one second and then hold it over his head howling like a Tusken Raider the next. The film doesn’t even bother with any mystery or suspense with the character, despite him appearing fairly normal – he shows up, immediately kills I’m Not Hurt and then kills Sean. I question why anyone even follows him because he seems to have no direction. Vilmer abuses Darla to the point of almost killing her on multiple occasions and he bashes W.E. in the head with a hammer when he gets angry, which actually kills his brother as far as we are shown. Of course, then we find out that he works for the Illuminati, the “people who killed JFK”. I went into this film knowing that about the Illuminati twist, but holy shit it made no sense. The film explains that the Illuminati want to give people a transcendent experience via “true horror” and aren’t really happy with how Vilmer is going about it, but… well, at what point did they become so disappointed? Are they okay with Vilmer murdering at least three other people just so Jenny can have this experience? Why would the people who killed JFK have any sort of interest in transcendent experiences for random people? Why would this secret society care so much about the integrity of this experience that they would elaborately murder Vilmer by crop duster and then appear to personally apologize to Jenny for it, thereby blowing their cover!? Maybe, again, if the film had set anything up then this might have come across as something other than baffling, but as it is it just comes out of nowhere. Oh and just to make things even more confusing, Kim Henkel has hinted that maybe Rothman isn’t really part of the Illuminati, maybe he’s just a cult leader… because that just helps make this movie better I suppose? I’m pretty sure that this whole Illuminati subplot is intended to be a Cabin in the Woods-style commentary on the relationship between horror sequels and the audience, saying that horror sequels have failed to provide audiences with a true, transcendent experience of horror. Rothman even comes out and straight-up apologizes to the audience, saying: “It’s been an abomination. You really must accept my sincerest apologies. It was supposed to be a spiritual experience. I can’t tell you how disappointed I am”. This might have been an interesting commentary if The Next Generation wasn’t a bad horror sequel in itself – being self-aware about being bad doesn’t excuse the fact that your film is still bad… if anything, it makes it more insulting that you didn’t just go and make a movie that wasn’t shit.

Hell, Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation is not just a bad horror sequel, it’s a truly abysmal one. To put it in The Howling terms, it’s no New Moon Rising (where it literally could not possibly be worse), but it’s in the ballpark of Your Sister is a Werewolf and The Marsupials, where the decisions about the making of the film were all wrong and you end up with something bafflingly bad. Or, to compare it to other slasher films, this movie is worse than Jason Goes to Hell (the Friday the 13th where Jason turns into a body snatcher and, among other things, crawls up a dead woman’s vagina in order to be reborn from her). This movie is just so dumb, senseless and dull, and has the audacity to think that it’s making some sort of grand statement in the process. Just thinking back on this movie makes me more annoyed with its existence. This is the sort of film which reminds you that creative freedom isn’t always a good thing and, while I appreciate that Henkel had his own vision for the franchise, the end result was not worth the effort at all.

2/10

Be sure to tune in again soon as we look at the fifth entry in the franchise, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake!

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Retrospective: Leatherface – The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III (1990)

Welcome back to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre retrospective! In today’s entry we’re going to be covering the third film in the franchise, 1990’s Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III! This is one of those rare movies where the trailer is more famous than the film itself, featuring an insane, Arthurian bestowing of the chainsaw to its titular villain. Any movie would have a hard time living up to a teaser that ridiculous, but could Leatherface beat sequel fatigue and the departure of Tobe Hooper? Read on to find out…

This poster is just… eww. The tagline sucks, the chainsaw looks ridiculous and I’m not a fan of Leatherface’s look at all (something which I will get into later). By far my least favourite main poster in the entire franchise.


PRODUCTION

After The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, The Cannon Group had the rights to the franchise. However, by 1989 the company was on the verge of bankruptcy and in desperate need of cash. New Line Cinema bought the rights to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre from The Cannon Group and hoped to bring another major icon into their stable on par with Freddy Krueger. The film was written by David J. Schow, who had done uncredited writing for New Line on A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child. Schow decided to bring the franchise back in line with the original film, ditching the campy and comic elements that Hooper had brought to the fore in Chainsaw 2. The studio also sought to turn Leatherface into an icon in his own right, rather than focus too much on the Sawyer family, hence why the film puts the name “Leatherface” in the forefront for the first time.

After being turned down by Tom Savini and a young Peter Jackson, New Line approached Jeff Burr (who would later go on to direct several Puppetmaster sequels) to direct the film, as he had just come off of the relatively successful Stepfather II. Burr was very reverential of the original Chainsaw and as a result had some specific demands for the film if he was going to direct – he wanted to shoot in Texas on 16mm film like Tobe Hooper had and Gunnar Hansen had to come back as Leatherface. New Line Cinema thought that this was hilarious and immediately dropped Burr from the production, wanting someone who would kowtow to their own demands and hoped to secure a major actor to play Leatherface. Unfortunately for them, neither of these dreams came to pass and after their replacement director Jonathan Betuel dropped out, New Line convinced Burr to take over production again. However, by this time it would have been May or June of 1989 and New Line had set a firm release date of November 3, 1989, meaning that Burr was under an intensely fast five month deadline to complete the film. He also had to relinquish some of his demands, as sets had already been constructed in Southern California.

New Line didn’t get the big name actor they wanted for Leatherface and a deal could not be reached to get Gunnar Hansen to return. Instead, the role went to former wrestler R. A. Mihaloff. The film’s leading roles went to Kate Hodge (in her first film role) and William Butler (an actor now famous for getting killed in horror movies) as the hapless couple Michelle and Ryan. Horror legend Ken Foree, most famous for being the hero of George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, was brought in to play the survivalist hero Benny. A young and virtually-unknown Viggo Mortensen was cast as the villainous Eddie “Tex” Sawyer, a casting decision which single-handedly made me interested in this film. Of the other villainous cast, Joe Unger was cast as Tink Sawyer and Tom Everett (in one of his first roles) as Alfredo Sawyer. Caroline Williams also appears very briefly in a cameo sequence, reprising her role as Stretch from the previous film.

Setbacks and creative clashes between Burr and New Line basically defined the production of Leatherface. Filming locations were destroyed by wildfires, crew members dropped out and sequences Burr had wanted to film, such as a scene where Leatherface would wield a chainsaw on horseback to play off of the Arthurian teaser trailer, were too expensive for the film’s minuscule budget. Test audiences also were not enthused about the film’s ending so New Line did reshoots and changed the ending without Jeff Burr’s knowledge, leading to a more definitively happier ending which doesn’t make a lot of sense. Then, when the film was submitted to the MPAA, the film was slapped with an X-rating (the last film which would receive this rating before the NC-17 rating was created), necessitating over five minutes of the film to be cut. All of these delays meant that the film was pushed out of its November 3rd released date and shunted to January of 1990, at the time considered the release window where movies went to die. All-told, the film ended up grossing less than $6 million and cooled any interest New Line had on turning Leatherface into a new icon for the company.

PLOT SYNOPSIS
The film’s opening crawl positions Leatherface as an alternate continuity to Chainsaw 2, where law enforcement raided the Sawyer house and apprehended Drayton, believing him to be the “Leatherface” Sally had referenced before she went crazy and died in a private health care facility in 1977. Drayton was executed for the family’s crimes, but Leatherface escaped. After an opening scene that features Leatherface killing a woman, the film follows a couple, Michelle and Ryan, driving through Texas. They pass a police checkpoint where investigators have discovered a mass grave of over forty murder victims before stopping at a gas station. Here they meet a hitchhiking cowboy named Tex and the station’s perverted proprietor, Alfredo. Tex gives Ryan directions to a nearby town that doesn’t appear on their map and then discovers that Alfredo has been spying on Michelle through a peephole in the women’s washroom. Alfredo and Tex get into an altercation which leads to Alfredo shooting him, while Michelle and Ryan flee towards the town Tex mentioned. However, night falls and the town is still nowhere in sight when the pair are pursued by a truck and attacked. Their car is damaged and they have to change the tire, which is just barely completed before they are attacked by Leatherface and flee. However, while fleeing they collide with another driver named Benny who is passing through the area. Benny tends to the couple and is initially skeptical of their claims about being hunted by crazy people, until he comes across a man named Tink who has found the scene of the accident. Benny grabs a rifle from his truck before Tink rams it and then Leatherface attacks. Leatherface nearly kills Benny before the sister of the woman he killed in the opening scene arrives to distract him before doubling back to help Benny. This woman, Sara, tells Benny that Leatherface and his family have been setting traps and luring passersby into the area to be killed, including Sara’s family. Benny then goes to try to help Ryan and Michelle, and Leatherface finds and kills Sara shortly thereafter.

With Sara dead, Leatherface then begins hunting Michelle and Ryan. While fleeing him, Ryan steps in a bear trap and Michelle is forced to escape without him. She comes across a house where she finds a little girl, who then stabs Michelle with a knife before Tex arrives and reveals that Michelle has escaped into the Sawyers’ lair. Tex ties up Michelle and then freaking nails her hands to a chair to make sure she doesn’t try to escape. The rest of the family begin to gather for dinner, including Tink, Leatherface, the elderly Mama Sawyer and Grandpa’s withered corpse. Ryan’s body is brought in and suspended with meat hooks before revealing that he’s still barely alive. Tink presents Leatherface with a golden chainsaw as a gift and then tells him that he still needs to finish the job and kill Benny to prevent any loose ends.

Meanwhile Alfredo, the family butt-monkey, is headed to a bog to dump the family’s latest victims’ remains. Benny sneaks up on him and knocks him out after unsuccessfully trying to get information. The little girl, revealed to be Leatherface’s daughter, kills Ryan with a hammer and then Leatherface prepares to kill Michelle as well. However, before he can, Benny finds the house and opens fire with his rifle, killing Mama, blowing Tink’s fingers and ear off and double-tapping Grandpa for good measure. In the chaos, Michelle tears her hands out of the nails and escapes. Leatherface pursues her into the woods while Benny and Tex fight. Benny kills Tex by lighting him on fire and then hurries to help Michelle. They fight Leatherface in the bog, with Benny being seriously injured before Michelle bashes Leatherface with a rock.

The next morning, Michelle manages to reach the road and is surprised when Alfredo’s truck pulls in front of her. However, Benny is driving it and offers to help her, but then Alfredo shows up and knocks him out. Michelle grabs Alfredo’s shotgun and then shoots him in the chest. Michelle and Benny then finally escape, driving away as Leatherface watches and revs his chainsaw.

REVIEW
It should perhaps be unsurprising that Leatherface ditches the comedic elements of Chainsaw 2 and brings the franchise back to its horror roots. It might have even overcompensated in some ways because this film is just grim and nasty at times. The film opens with Leatherface making a new mask from a fresh kill and we actually get to see him slicing the removed face up and stitching it together. There’s also the scene of Michelle getting her hands nailed to a chair which is just brutal to watch. The film seems like it was intended to be even gorier before the MPAA forced cuts, because there are a lot of potentially gory scenes which the film cuts away from at the last second (such as Ryan’s head getting bludgeoned). However, that doesn’t take away from the other nasty elements of the film which are less explicit. Alfredo is a disgusting pervert with juvenile, rapey vibes and I wished he would just die whenever he was on screen. Oh and then there’s the scene where Mama Sawyer tells Michelle that she cut her own genitals out years ago, that she also castrated Grandpa Sawyer and that Leatherface loves to rape and mutilate genitals as well… this just comes out of nowhere and is way beyond the sort of nastiness that we’ve already come to expect with this character. Like, wasn’t Leatherface established as a butcher who loves killing indiscriminately? Hell, the whole cannibalism aspect doesn’t even get touched upon. I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re trying to work in more elements of Ed Gein into the character, but the way that it just comes out of nowhere in the last half of the film and goes against the character as he has been established is questionable (although it gives new meaning to the idea of objectifying people as “meat” in this franchise).

Another element worth noting is that most of Leatherface‘s story just doesn’t make any sense when you apply scrutiny to it. This wasn’t really an issue with the other two films – the first was very simple and realistic, whereas the second’s comedic and campy tone paves over some of the stranger aspects one could point out. However, Leatherface is just fundamentally flawed. For example, we find out during this film that the Sawyers are luring passing motorists into ambushes, which is a pretty cool idea and makes this film feel akin to something from The Hills Have Eyes. However, rather than intimidate locals into sending people their way, they instead set up an elaborate and pointlessly convoluted scheme. Basically, Tex tries to hitchhike with people who attend the gas station and take them back to his house. If that doesn’t work, he tells them about a shortcut to town and then gets Alfredo to pretend to shoot him to cause the motorists to flee to town and run into the Sawyers’ trap. Hey… why not just shoot any motorists at the gas station? Is that not less convoluted and less likely to go wrong? Why did they even need to hunt people down? I don’t think it’s for the fun of it all either, because later they complain about how there are still loose ends out there, but they went and created those loose ends in the first place with their stupid plan. Also, what about the body dumping? I thought the Sawyers ate their victims, but we see Alfredo dumping dismembered corpses into the bog and the bodies found by the police are also intact. So… what are the Sawyers even doing in this film? Are they just draining blood to feed to Grandpa and making skin masks every once in a while now?

There are also parts of the film which straight-up needed to be cut because they don’t add anything, such as a pair of investigators we’re introduced to early in the film who are digging up bodies and then never show up again. What was the point of introducing them? Or what about the reporter in the same scene who inflates the body-count and then can’t pronounce the state of decomposition? It’s meant to be a dig at news media, but the film never bothers to do so again, so what was the purpose of this? What about the earring worn by an armadillo, a dead coyote and Tink? This doesn’t seem to have any other purpose than to reveal that they’re linked, but this link goes unexplained and makes no sense in the film. Oh and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Sara as well. She acts as a deus ex machina to save Benny’s ass from Leatherface, acts as an exposition dump to explain what is going on and then is immediately killed by Leatherface despite the implication that she’s a tough survivor to have lasted a whole week on the run. She’s a totally unnecessary character and if the production hadn’t been so rushed she would have been either fleshed out significantly or cut entirely. You’re telling me that she’s been lost in the woods and can’t get away for over a week now, but Michelle manages to get back to the road in a single night? Suuuuure.

As for the actual script, I’ve got to say that I really did not like Michelle and Ryan. They spend the first half of the movie bickering with each other and Ryan especially comes across as a dick. Michelle does get more enjoyable in the second half of the film when she starts fighting back against the Sawyers, but neither character is particularly fleshed out. It also doesn’t help that a lot of the dialogue in this film is really clunky, and Michelle and Ryan get saddled with a number of stinkers. For example, when Michelle is driving in the dark and they can hear a vehicle somewhere, Ryan and Michelle argue about where it’s coming from… until the truck turns its lights on behind them, Michelle comments on this and then Ryan yells “It’s coming from behind us!” The line just makes you want to go “No shit, dude!” There’s also a line where Ryan claims that there are a bunch of guys after them with guns, but only a minute later they’re saying that there are two people after them. Sara also has a pretty dumb line where she tells Benny he had the wrong idea bringing a gun to a chainsaw fight… um what? He later uses that gun to disarm Leatherface and take out half of his family in one volley, I’m pretty sure he’s fine.

Benny’s arrival helps breathe new life into the film, thanks largely to Ken Foree’s capable performance. Benny is just way more interesting to watch since, as a survivalist, he actually knows what he’s doing and is prepared for this kind of scenario. He even gets into multiple fights with the villains throughout the film and is constantly rescuing the less-capable characters selflessly. Ken Foree is great in this film, but I have to say that the best performance goes to Viggo Mortensen as Tex, hands-down. He’s no Chop Top, but Viggo works a fair bit of depth into the character. By Sawyer standards, he’s mostly sane and has a very charming veneer. However, when that veneer drops he reveals that he’s on the edge of breaking, such as when Tink calls him by his real name “Eddie” and Tex almost cuts his hand off before asking him politely to call him “Tex”. Unfortunately, the other Sawyers aren’t nearly as compelling. I’ll get to Leatherface in a moment, but while all of the Sawyers in this film have their quirks, no one really gets all that much material to work with. Tink is the tech guy for the family and seems to be fairly sane. Mama is the matriarch and has had a tracheotomy. Leatherface’s daughter is a little psycho (and the child actor playing her is not great at delivering dialogue). Oh and Alfredo is a one-dimensional piece of shit who talks to himself, threatens to rape people and is implied to have engaged in necrophilia. Lovely.

As for Leatherface, he’s once again a very different character. One rather cool addition to the character is that he wears a metal leg brace after the injury he sustained at the end of the first movie. This actually allows Michelle and Ryan to hear him approaching when he first arrives, which could have been a cool, Jaws-like way to build suspense. Unfortunately, it only really shows up in this first scene, but it was a potentially smart way to make the character even scarier. Also, Leatherface no longer seems like he’s severely mentally deficient, or at least nowhere near the same level of dangerously stupid as he was previously. For example, in this film he now knows how to drive and is teaching himself how to spell, although he seems to only be able to view humans as “food” in a humorously unsubtle scene. His biggest issue seems to be that he’s incapable of speech, but he actually fights back against his family now. In one scene, Tink throws Leatherface’s Walkman in the oven as a lesson, but Leatherface fights back and forces Tink to reach into the flames to retrieve it, which is a far cry from when Drayton Sawyer was beating him for killing people back in the first film. This ties into Leatherface being just generally far more physically imposing in this film. At one point he tears the trunk of Michelle’s car off with his bare hands and the golden chainsaw he receives near the end of the film is ridiculously massive (apparently weighing around 80lbs). Between being made less cripplingly stupid and getting ‘roided up, Leatherface feels a lot more like Jason Voorhees in this film, which I can’t help but feel was New Line Cinema’s vision for the franchise. However, it also makes the character feel more generic. Also, once again I’m not a fan of his mask. It doesn’t look rubbery like it did in Chainsaw 2, but it instead looks like it’s made of mud and is just plain ugly (in a bad way).

Another thing that really grates me about this film is that has some really heavy-handed references to the first film, especially in the first act, to the point where it almost feels like a remake at times. Off the bat, we’ve got a couple driving through Texas and listening to grisly news reports about a mass grave and then camera flashes illuminating corpses when we see this mass grave. Then when they reach the gas station, Alfredo takes Michelle’s picture and asks her to pay him for it and Tex tells us that Alfredo lost his job when the old slaughterhouse shut down. And, of course, there’s yet another dinner scene, this time complete with a body hanging from meathooks. Look, the dinner scene was truly iconic and horrifying, but do we need to rip it off in every subsequent Chainsaw film?

Man, I’ve really been ragging on Leatherface throughout this retrospective, but it really isn’t as bad as I’m making it sound. Taking cues from The Hills Have Eyes and having the villains lure victims into their territory (complete with booby-traps) is actually ingenious and, while the justification isn’t really there in the script, it helps give this film its own identity in the franchise. Having the villains actively hunting people now is actually a pretty smart way to advance the franchise formula, if only a little. Also, Jeff Burr’s direction is quite good especially considering the film’s low budget and the fact that at least half of the film is shot at night. This could make things very hard to see, but Burr lights the scenes very well without it seeming unnatural. Also, while the film is nowhere near as tense or suspenseful as the original, it does have some pretty horrifying and nasty sequences, as I have mentioned, which make for a gruelling atmosphere at times. And, as dumb as the script is sometimes, there’s also some great payoffs, such as when Benny uses Sara’s lighter that he acquired from her earlier to light Tex on fire, or when Michelle flees into a bog and the audience realizes that it’s the bog Alfredo was dumping corpses into earlier. It would be unfortunate if I did not mention some of the cool sequences as well, most notably Leatherface and Benny’s fight, where Benny disarms him and then Leatherface pulls out this mini-saw Tink made him, which he uses to cut Benny’s leg and get the upper hand!

What can I say about Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III? It’s a competently-made film which is just brought down by some unfortunate elements, most importantly its frustratingly annoying leads and the shaky plot. Oh, and the studio interference certainly didn’t help, because I’m certain that that led to the movie feeling like a generic slasher sequel (most notably in its rather stupid reshot ending and that there isn’t really any sort of social commentary to the film). That said, compared to its contemporaries, this film is miles ahead of such films as Jason Takes Manhattan or The Revenge of Michael Meyers, not to mention New Line running A Nightmare on Elm Street into the ground with The Dream Child and Freddy’s Dead. I have to say that it’s nowhere near as messy as Chainsaw 2, but it also less distinctive and the characters are far less interesting. All-in-all it’s a slasher sequel – a fairly decent one, but a slasher sequel none the less.

4/10

Be sure to tune in again soon as we look at the fourth film in the franchise, Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation!

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Retrospective: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986)

Welcome back to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre retrospective! In this entry we’re going to be looking at the first sequel in the franchise, the aptly-titled The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2! Like I mentioned in the previous entry, the my first introduction to this franchise was in a classic movie theatre showing the original film and its first sequel back-to-back. This film has amassed a very dedicated cult following, but does it hold a candle to the original film? Read on to find out…

This is kind of a strange poster considering that it’s a parody of The Breakfast Club, but considering the parodic intent of the film and the franchise’s themes of twisting traditional family structures, this is a pretty appropriate poster for the film.

PRODUCTION
Due to the very shady financing of the original Chainsaw, Tobe Hooper, the cast and the crew ended up seeing very little in return despite the film’s financial success. However, it went on to inspire other films and only four years after the release of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, John Carpenter’s Halloween was released and kicked off the slasher craze of the 1980s. At this time, horror was becoming defined by gory exploitation films with high body counts, most readily exemplified by the Friday the 13th franchise, as well as the Halloween films, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Sleepaway Camp, Silent Night, Deadly Night, sequels to Psycho and countless one-off slashers hoping to become the next big thing. Perhaps inextricably linked to this increase in the popularity of slashers was the simultaneous rise in conservatism throughout the 80s, defined by the Reagan era. This was an age of moral panics and slasher films often became targets due to this (and as a result, many slasher films actually had their violence toned down significantly due to censorship, making them appear much tamer than films even 10 years later).

In the mid-80s and fresh off of the success of Poltergeist, Tobe Hooper signed a three-picture contract with Cannon films, a production company famous for creating a number of iconic, low-budget genre films during the 80s, such as Death Wish, Delta Force, Missing in ActionMasters of the Universe and, when they were on the verge of implosion, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. As part of the three picture deal, Hooper had agreed to make a sequel to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre in exchange for high budgets and creative freedom on his projects for Cannon. However, his first two pictures, Lifeforce and Invaders from Mars, were financially unsuccessful and so the pressure was on for Hooper to deliver with Chainsaw 2. So desperate was Cannon for a hit that before the film had even been written they went ahead and set a release date and booked screens, leaving Hooper barely eight months to complete the film. Hooper approached celebrated screenwriter L.M. Kit Carson (fresh off of such films as Breathless and Paris, Texas). Despite the time crunch and the stigma associated with writing a slasher sequel which would “[wipe] your name right off the Serious Screenwriters’ Map”, Carson agreed to write the script as he had found Hooper’s original film enthralling and felt that the director was capable of tapping into madness unlike any other filmmaker.

According to Carson, “The first thing I told Tobe was, ‘You’re going to have to find the right victims […] One of the things the first movie had going for it was that people were really sick of hippies and enjoyed seeing a Volkswagen full of ’em squashed. So, I went home to Dallas and went to the Galleria, which is a yuppie feeding ground. I saw all these yuppies buying piles of things, seven sweaters at a time. I called Tobe up and said, ‘I’ve found the victims.'” Despite various sneering references in the screenplay to yuppies, the film only ended up featuring one scene with them being killed. However, there are deleted scenes which reveal that there were supposed to be several other scenes of Leatherface and Chop Top harvesting yuppies which were ultimately cut from the film, which leaves the whole idea of poking fun at yuppies largely absent from the film after the first ten minutes are over. According to Caroline Williams, this was due to differences between Cannon and Hooper – Hooper wanted to make a satirical black comedy, but Cannon wanted a more straightforward slasher film and took Hooper’s vision away from him before release.

The only returning cast member from the original Chainsaw was Jim Siedow as Drayton Sawyer. Gunnar Hansen was apparently approached to reprise his role as Leatherface, but turned it down (likely due to pay concerns) and the role went to Bill Johnson instead in his first (and arguably only) major role. The film’s publicist didn’t think that there was any sense in securing the original actors anyway, since none of them had achieved major stardom. Of the new cast, the female lead went to Caroline Williams as radio host Vanita “Stretch” Brock in her first leading role. The film also features Dennis freaking Hopper as Lefty Enright. He was already a big star by the time Chainsaw 2 came out and would only become even more notable as Blue Velvet would be released that exact same year! Also worth noting is Bill Moseley as Chop Top in his first major film role. Moseley, who would later go on to become a horror icon, received the role for having created a parody film called The Texas Chainsaw Manicure which Tobe Hooper loved. The other notable cast member was Lou Perryman as L.G., who had been a film crew member for the original Chainsaw and who would tragically be killed by a real-life axe murderer in his home in 2009. Oh, and I would be remiss if I did not mention that the legendary Tom Savini (of Dawn and Day of the Dead and Friday the 13th fame) was brought on to do the special makeup effects in this film!

Much like the original, Chainsaw 2 released to significant controversy, earning an X rating from the MPAA for its violence and was instead released unrated. At the time of release, it was banned in Germany, Singapore, the UK and Australia and would remain so for 20-30 years in these countries! However, its controversial impact was certainly not as widespread as the original’s was.

PLOT SYNOPSIS
Like its predecessor, Chainsaw 2 starts with an opening voice-over which tells the audience that Sally escaped and told authorities about the Sawyer family, but no evidence of the crimes could be found and authorities denied that there ever was a Texas chainsaw massacre (thereby contradicting the whole conceit of the previous film being based on true crimes). The film then follows a pair of dumb teenagers who have come to town to party and cause ruckus as they drive erratically, fire a freaking magnum at street signs and phone into the local all-request station to harass the radio host, Stretch. During their joyride they run a truck off of the road. Later in the evening, the pair call Stretch to harass her again when the truck they encountered earlier pursues them and a chainsaw-wielding maniac hacks them and their car to pieces. Stretch and her co-worker L.G. hear everything on the phone and Stretch decides to keep the tape because she believes that some sort of crime had just occurred.

The next morning, the scene of the car crash is investigated by Lieutenant “Lefty” Enright before the police can arrive. Lefty is Sally and Franklin’s uncle and has been investigating chainsaw-killer deaths around the state, trying to find the perpetrators. He convinces the police to put out a bulletin in the newspaper for any evidence of what happened to cause this accident. Stretch sees this bulletin and takes her recording of the incident to Lefty, offering to play it on the radio to flush the perpetrators out. Lefty is inexplicably skeptical and sends her away, but after purchasing some chainsaws he tracks her down and agrees to help.

That night, Stretch plays the recording of the incident, which upsets several locals. At closing time, Stretch encounters an eccentric, sinister-looking man who asks for a tour of the radio station and says that he liked the tape she played that night. Leatherface suddenly bursts out and attacks, causing Stretch to run and lock herself safely away while the other man, Leatherface’s brother Chop Top, looks for the recording of the killings. L.G. returns to the radio station and is brutally bludgeoned by Chop Top as Leatherface breaks into Stretch’s hiding place. However, instead of killing her, Leatherface finds himself aroused by her and decides to spare her. He lies to Chop Top about killing Stretch and then the pair escape with L.G.’s body. Stretch pursues the pair to an abandoned amusement park until Lefty arrives on the scene. However, Stretch falls down a shaft and ends up in the Sawyers’ meat locker. Meanwhile, Lefty enters the amusement park and starts becoming extremely erratic as he chainsaws the support beams down, hoping to collapse the entire building on top of the Sawyers.

Leatherface finds Stretch while he is skinning L.G.’s body. Not wanting her to be discovered and killed by the rest of his family, he tries to hide her under a mask made from L.G.’s face and then ties her up. However, L.G. is somehow still alive and he cuts Stretch free before finally succumbing to his wounds. She sneaks out and tries to get past the Sawyer family, but is spotted and chased. When they finally catch up to her, Drayton tells Leatherface to kill her, but he refuses and Drayton tells him that he’s going to have to decide between sex and family. When Leatherface still refuses, he gets angry and Chop Top knocks her out.

Stretch awakens in another dinner scene and is brought before Grandpa, who once again tries to bash her head in. However, before he can finish her off, Lefty arrives and chainsaws Drayton in the ass and then gets into a FREAKING CHAINSAW DUEL with Leatherface! Stretch flees and is pursued by Chop Top. Meanwhile, Lefty impales Leatherface with a chainsaw, but the pair continue to fight before a dying Drayton blows everyone up with a grenade. Only Stretch and Chop Top escape, fleeing to the top of the amusement part where Stretch finds grandma’s body with a chainsaw. She steals the chainsaw and then slashes Chop Top open with it, sending him tumbling to the ground before she screams and dances in victory.

REVIEW
If you can’t tell from that plot summary, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is a wildly different film than its predecessor. Whereas the original Chainsaw is gruelling and realistic, Chainsaw 2 is campy and over-the-top, aiming to be more of a horror comedy. You can probably imagine the whiplash I experienced going into these two films for the first time, back-to-back and completely unaware of what they were like! Perhaps Tobe Hooper was aiming for some of that true madness that L.M. Kit Carson was alluding to, but this film has some moments of utter batshit lunacy, frighteningly akin to the sort of stuff you might come across in Howling II (which was released only one year earlier… the 80s were a weird time for cinema). Some of this comes from the film striking a campy tone. This gets expressed in various ways throughout the film, but one method is through the portrayal of the amusement park setting, which makes me think of the goofiness of Mr. Freeze’s lair in Batman & Robin. The characters also feel more like “characters” than real people this time around as well. Even returning faces such as Drayton Sawyer have taken a mustache-twirling direction with his oversized van and gleeful cheering about his famous chilli recipe.

Scenery-chewing absolutely abounds in this film and while Jim Siedow tries his best, the most amazingly campy performances in this film go to Bill Moseley and Dennis Hopper without question. Bill Moseley’s Chop Top is a revelation, especially considering that this was his first major role. From his first moment on screen he is enthralling to watch, gleefully eccentric and dangerously unhinged. Even his character ticks of scratching his exposed metal plate with a hot wire and eating bits of his necrotic skin is fascinating, and he actually manages to get across the character’s Vietnam veteran background without having to hammer the audience with exposition. Chop Top is by far the best aspect of this film and effectively demonstrates that having a family of serial killers is a fantastic asset for the Chainsaw franchise to capitalize on.

Meanwhile, Dennis Hopper’s Lefty Enright is just baffling to witness. On his introduction, he comes across like the hero of the film, a Dirty Harry-style hero who’s going to come into town and stop the chainsaw killers. However, it soon becomes apparent that he’s about as deranged as the people he’s hunting and he even uses Stretch and L.G. as bait to lure the Sawyers out of hiding. We don’t really get a sense of just how much of a nut he is though until he gets to the amusement park and then starts screaming like a crazy person, quoting made-up scripture (“I am the Lord of the Harvest…”) and repeatedly yelling “BRING IT ALL DOWN!!! MAY THE LORD HAVE MERCY ON OUR SOULS!!!” like a madman. It’s hilarious and I’m sure that Dennis Hopper is the one who is making it all so gloriously over-the-top, because it makes absolutely no sense in the context of the film for this character to be so bonkers. He even gets into a dual-wielding chainsaw duel with Leatherface and wins, which might be the most badass concept ever put to film (until 10 years later when Kurt Russel would surf a tidal wave through downtown Los Angeles onto the back of Steve Buscemi’s car to punch him in the face). That’s right, this is a character who believes that the only way to beat chainsaw-wielding maniacs is by being even more of a maniac with even more chainsaws.

With all the scenery chewing going on, it’s easy to lose Caroline Williams’ lead performance was Stretch in the shuffle, but I have to give her credit for being a great in this film. She gets put through the freaking wringer throughout Chainsaw 2, getting harassed by the yuppies, getting used as bait by Lefty, getting chased around by murderous maniacs and having to deal with deeply uncomfortable rape vibes from Leatherface throughout the whole ordeal. Unlike Sally in the previous film, she actually gets a chance to fight back on occasion and uses her own cunning to pacify Leatherface enough to stay alive (despite the aforementioned rapey vibes). In my opinion, she’s definitely the best final girl in the whole franchise.

As for Leatherface, his performance is… different. He doesn’t come across quite as dangerously stupid as he was in the first film and his mental deficiencies feel more like a gimmick than central to the character. I also don’t really like how the whole “sexual awakening” subplot was handled because it turns the character into something of a joke and is just deeply uncomfortable to witness. When Leatherface breaks into Stretch’s hiding place, he gets aroused while waving his chainsaw around and soaking Stretch in beer. Stretch seems to understand what’s going on and keeps egging him on, saying “You’re really good, aren’t you?” He then sticks his chainsaw between her legs and makes what can only be described as an o-face before he revs his chainsaw orgasmically and destroys the room in ecstasy… I mean, holy shit, it’s the sort of scene that I can barely believe exists, but there it is. It also makes Leatherface’s chainsaw gimmick retroactively icky, since it explicitly makes the chainsaw a penis metaphor, an association which I would argue isn’t particularly appropriate for this character since he has never really been about masculine aggression or sexualized violence (in fact, gender ambiguity was very much an element of the character that the previous film established). Having to spend the bulk of his scenes getting outshone by Chop Top is bad enough, but I just don’t find Leatherface nearly as compelling in this film. The only character moment he got that I really liked was when he finds Stretch in the meat locker and tries to hide her under a mask made from L.G.’s face skin, showing a bit more of the character’s twisted but identifiable logic, as he believes that this mask will keep her safe like it does for himself. Oh and speaking of skin masks, I am not a huge fan of his mask in this film, it looks much more rubbery than the previous film and more like a scary mask prop.

I’d also be remiss if I neglected to mention Tom Savini’s contributions to this film. While I feel like it’s some of his lesser work (in part perhaps because his best makeup effects were apparently left on the cutting room floor), there are some pretty gnarly scenes in this film, such as a yuppie getting his head chainsawed in half and Leatherface getting impaled by a chainsaw during his duel with Lefty. By far the most impressive effect in the film though is L.G.’s partially-skinned and face-less corpse standing up and helping Stretch while she’s wearing his face. It’s incredibly gruesome seeing the exposed muscle and bones and the makeup effects make far and away the most horrifying moment in the film.

How about this film’s themes? The original film had some surprisingly interesting themes beneath its simple exterior; could its sequel channel a similar spirit to comment on society in the 80s? Well… that is hard to say definitively. Defenders of the film, such as Joey Click at Fansided, like to point out that it “is a response to ’80s consumerism and the rise of yuppie culture. A perfect companion to John Carpenter’s They LiveThe Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is a film steep in ideas of the almighty dollar becoming king […] From the opening, where the Sawyers literally kill two spoiled yuppies, the film is full of examples of pushing back against a culture emerging from Reaganomics. The Sawyers are feeding victims to people, so it’s almost literal.” Tobe Hooper and L.M. Kit Carson’s discussions about what the film reveal that it was conceived to support these ideas. However, I feel like there was something lost in translation. I didn’t grow up in the 80s so maybe I’m missing some of the context, but the film we got doesn’t feel like the biting satire that its defenders claim it is. As it is, we’ve got two yuppies getting gleefully murdered and then an hour and twenty minutes of a radio host getting terrorized by maniacs. Drayton makes a couple barbs once again about how small businessmen are getting screwed by Reagan’s politics, but again, when the film is about a regular, small town radio host getting terrorized it’s hard to say that this serves much thematic point. I don’t think you can justifiably call a film a satire of 80s consumer culture when only the opening scene makes any real substantial reference to it. If the deleted scenes of Leatherface and Chop Top killing yuppies had made their way into the film then it might have achieved that vision, but the film that was released does not. For what it’s worth though, Joey Click also claims that the original Chainsaw had no themes or commentary though, so take their opinion as you will.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is a bit of a mess of a film. It’s all over the place and it definitely feels like the seven month production schedule seriously compromised the final product, not to mention the indications that Cannon screwed with Hooper’s vision for the sequel. However, I can appreciate its attempts to do something different and it is certainly never boring. There are also some fantastic individual elements, especially Bill Moseley’s standout, iconic performance. Hell, there are also some very memorable lines in this film, from the iconic “the saw is family”, to Dennis Hopper screaming “I am the Lord of the Harvest…”, “May God have mercy on us all!!!” and “BRING IT ALL DOWN!!!” It’s not the sort of sequel that I would have liked to see from the original creators, but I have warmed to it slightly more after understanding what it is that they were going for. It really is a bonkers film though, so I can only give it so much credit.

4.5/10

Be sure to tune in soon as we take a look at the third entry in the franchise, Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III!

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Retrospective: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

Happy 2019 and what better way to start a new year than with a new retrospectives series? Consider it my gift to you! This time we’re dipping back into the horror well with one of the most iconic and storied slasher franchises, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Of course, that means that we’re going to start at the beginning today, with 1974’s landmark original, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (it’s worth noting that the original is the only film in the franchise which makes “chain saw” two separate words). I first saw this film during a late-night double feature at the Mayfair Theatre in Ottawa – they were showing the first two Chainsaw films back-to-back and it was possibly the coolest way to experience these films in their intended setting. Does the original still hold up 45 years later? Read on to find out…

A truly classic tagline right there, one of the best in cinema. For an old-school poster, it’s quite evocative too, showing one of the most iconic scenes in the film without truly spoiling it.

PRODUCTION
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was one of the first films by horror director Tobe Hooper, who would also go on to direct Poltergeist and the Salem’s Lot miniseries. Tobe Hooper came up with the concept for The Texas Chain Saw Massacre early in the 1970s. He was already working on a horror concept and was inspired by contemporary events at the time, such as Watergate and Vietnam, and by increasingly sensationalized and violent news coverage. He was also inspired by the crimes of serial killer Ed Gein. According to Hooper, the titular chainsaw was inspired by a trip to the store where he wished that he could hack his way through the busy crowds.

The script was co-written by Tobe Hooper and Kim Henkel, who would form the backbone for the series going forward. Most of the actors involved were unknowns or knew Hooper personally. Most notable were Marilyn Burns as Sally Hardesty, Gunnar Hansen as Leatherface, Jim Siedow as Drayton Sawyer and Paul Partain as Franklin Hardesty – for all of them, Chain Saw was one of, if not their first, film roles.

The film’s budget was incredibly tight which caused numerous issues for the production. For one thing, most of the cast and crew were promised shares of the potential profits for the film. However, the value of these profits was really only a fraction of what was promised, since it was based on the profits of the production company, rather than the film itself. Furthermore, due to the desire to cut down on equipment rental costs, the filming schedule was extremely punishing on the cast and crew, filming every day for a month, up to 16 hours per day in hot and humid weather up to 43°C! Even worse, costumes couldn’t be washed due to continuity reasons (stains couldn’t disappear) and because they straight-up could not afford to replace lost costumes. This all contributed to some very dangerous conditions for the actors, all of whom acquired some level of injury during filming. Most notably, the extreme conditions caused Gunnar Hansen to have a mental breakdown and believe that he actually had to murder Marilyn Burns, leading to a scene in the film where he actually cuts her finger with a knife, drawing real blood. The scene were Kirk’s body is carved up with a chainsaw was also incredibly dangerous as it involved a real chainsaw being operated within inches of William Vail’s face, meaning that if he moved he would have actually been killed. All-in-all, the extremely limited budget made for a difficult shoot for the cast and crew, but it also led to some very notable elements of the film, such as its unconventional soundtrack and grainy, grimy aesthetic. It also led to Tobe Hooper aiming for a more commercially-viable PG rating, keeping most of the explicit gore off-screen. Naturally, the film was far too horrifying for this to ever happen, but the lack of explicit gore actually enhances the horror as it is largely left up to the viewers’ imagination to fill in the blanks.

The film was released with the intentionally misleading claim that it was based on a true story, a factor which was believed to have contributed to the film’s commercial success. The film also proved incredibly controversial for years, a fact which may also have contributed to its success. In addition to audiences walking out of cinemas in disgust, in Ottawa police advised theaters that they would face morality charges if they screened the film, the British film censors banned the film for years (in part because the word “chainsaw” was banned from movie titles), Australian censors banned the film for a decade, and was also banned in Brazil, Chile, Finland, France, Iceland, Ireland, Norway, Singapore, Sweden and West Germany. Despite this, the film grossed over $30 million on a budget of around $130,000, making it one of the most profitable independent films at the time. It also helped to kick off the slasher genre, being one of the most successful slashers since Psycho and ushering in the success of Halloween a few years later.

PLOT SYNOPSIS
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre follows a group of young adults who travel to rural Texas to investigate the grave of Sally and Franklin Hardesty’s grandfather. There have been reports of grave robbing at his cemetery so they want to make sure his grave has not been disturbed. Joining them is Sally’s boyfriend Jerry and their friends Pam and Kirk. On the way back they go to visit the Hardesty’s old home and pick up a hitchhiker along the way. The hitchhiker acts very strangely, cutting himself with a knife and then slashing Franklin’s arm with a straight razor when he refuses to pay for a picture the hitchhiker had taken. Naturally, they kick him out of the van and then continue on their way to the house, searching for gas for the van on the way (the only gas station they encounter has no gas available).

Kirk and Pam try to go swimming but stumble across another house nearby and decide to see if there’s any gas available there. When they enter the house, they are both picked off by a masked maniac named Leatherface, who bludgeons Kirk to death and then hangs Pam on a meat hook before carving Kirk’s body up with a chainsaw. When Kirk and Pam are late getting back, Jerry decides to check on them and also stumbles across the house, where he finds Pam locked in the freezer before Leatherface also bludgeons him to death. With night setting on, Sally and Franklin are both becoming very worried about their friends and set off to find them, but are found by Leatherface, who kills Franklin and chases Sally around the countryside until she makes her way back to the gas station. However, the seemingly-nice proprietor kidnaps her and then takes her back to Leatherface’s house, revealing that he, the hitchhiker and Leatherface are all brothers in a serial killing family. They psychologically torture Sally over dinner and then try to kill her for their next meal, but Sally manages to escape and flags a passing transport truck. The truck accidentally runs over the hitchhiker and the driver injures Leatherface before Sally gets into another passing truck and flees.

REVIEW
As you can probably tell from the plot summary, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a pretty simple, straightforward film from a narrative standpoint. Rather than making this film feel generic or mediocre, this simplicity actually helps to sell the film’s assertion that this is a “true story”. It’s not like this is a mid-80s slasher film where the villain is hunting his long-lost family and killing in over-the-top ways, it’s just about a bunch of regular people who stumble across a horrifying family when they venture to the fringes of society. So many elements of the film help sell this aspect, from the grainy, grimey aesthetic (which would be emulated in future films such as All the Boys Love Mandy Lane), to the documentary-like filming style, to the unknown actors and their naturalistic performances. Even the film’s violence helps to sell the realism of the film. This certainly isn’t like a modern slasher which aims for creative and spectacular kills to help it stand out. Most of the kills here are sudden and brutal – Kirk and Jerry are both bludgeoned to death in a very quick and efficient manner, Kirk’s body and Franklin are chopped up by Leatherface off-screen and the Hitchhiker’s death by transport truck is also very sudden and not particularly gory. The disturbing imagery (mutilated corpses, stolen parts from robbed graves, etc) are also ripped straight from serial killer cases, most prominently Ed Gein. The film’s realistic feel is a major contributor to its success and why it is so disturbing. In fact, the ending doesn’t really make a lot of sense without this aspect – what purpose does the image of Leatherface flailing with his chainsaw in the sunset convey to the audience other than “the villain is still out there”? It’s so much more effective than the cheap jump scares that other horror movies think that they have to work in at the very end.

In addition to drawing on realism for horror, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre has plenty of other ways to scare or unsettle its audience. The primal horror of getting chased by a masked maniac in the dark is obvious, but some of the most disturbing parts of this film are much more unconventional and interesting. My favourite technique is how Tobe Hooper will use extreme close-ups to disorient the audience and reveal bits and pieces of disturbing imagery, while cutting in between increasingly more terrified reaction shots of the characters. This is done on a couple different occasions. In the first, Pam falls in the Sawyer family living room and tries to take in the room, giving the audience snippets of bones and drawing the scene out as the audience pieces the scene together just like Pam, before revealing that the couch is adorned with human remains. The infamous dinner scene at the end of the film is also made all the more unsettling by the extreme close-ups of Marilyn Burns’ eyes, which project a look of abject terror which sells the scene and ratchets the intensity to stratospheric levels. A similar technique is also used in the opening scene where unearthed corpses are revealed in only momentary flashes from a camera. The audience’s imagination helps to fill in a lot of the blanks in all of these cases, a technique which The Texas Chain Saw Massacre leverages masterfully. Perhaps my favourite instance of this is in the opening credits, which play over a distorted, blood-red and black screen which is almost like a Rorschach test. This is made all the more unsettling by a voice over of news stories about death and violence, making these credits almost an image of madness, most of which is merely implied by the film and which is filled out in the audience’s minds.

I also want to give some attention to the acting in this film, because the performers are all universally great. Among the main cast, Marilyn Burns (Sally), Paul Danziger (Jerry), William Vail (Kirk) and Teri McMinn (Pam) all put in very convincing and naturalistic performances, but I want to give a special shout-out to Paul Partain’s wheelchair-bound Franklin. His performance is also quite natural, but he gets much more to work with and really makes for a more interesting character than the rest of the principle cast. I really disliked this character the first time I watched the film – he’s always pushing the other characters’ buttons, getting himself into trouble and whining about his woes. However, on further viewings I have really gotten a soft spot for Franklin, because he really is getting screwed over constantly. For one thing, the other characters mostly see him as a burden who got brought on this trip with them, evidenced by how as soon as they reach the family house they abandon him to have fun by themselves. This is also evidenced by how Franklin asks Sally if she didn’t want him to come with them and she deflects, saying that she’s just tired, denoting that she obviously did not want him to come. In addition, he just constantly gets shit upon by the world – the very first time we see him, he has to go to the bathroom beside the road and gets knocked into a ditch by a passing truck. Then he gets his arm slashed open by a random hitchhiker’s straight razor. Then he gets left out while all of his friends have fun. Then he loses his pocket knife. Then when all of their friends start disappearing, he begins to panic at the thought of losing Sally too and just pitifully sticks with her even though he can’t keep up on the uneven terrain. Oh, and then he gets chainsawed to death by a masked maniac to boot. I just feel so sorry for the poor guy, he’s just having an awful day and everyone else is treating him like crap.

The villains are also all very interesting characters. The idea of having a family of serial killers is pretty unique and is an often-forgotten element of the Chainsaw movies which helps set it apart from the other slasher franchises. The first member of the family we meet, Edwin Neal’s unnamed hitchhiker (given the name Nubbins Sawyer in subsequent films), is very compelling. He has a speech impediment and clearly has some sort of mental health issue, but is also just gleefully sadistic. His introduction is tense because he’s so clearly unhinged and fascinated by violence. He also clearly has his own internal logic which makes sense to him but to the audience is completely unpredictable, making any sort of interaction all the more tense. This is demonstrated in a couple different interactions, such as when he takes Franklin’s knife and then cuts himself with it to see how sharp it is. It is also shown when Franklin refuses to pay the hitchhiker for a photo, which insults him and leads him to attack Franklin. In the hitchhiker’s mind, he did Franklin a courtesy and the refusal is like spitting in his face for a job that he did.

There’s also the gas station proprietor (given the name Drayton Sawyer in subsequent films), who is played to perfection by Jim Siedow. He’s almost like an evil Mr. Rogers in this film – he’s the nice guy of his family, the only one who is clearly sane. However, he’s unmistakably evil: he abuses people for no other reason than to assert his dominance (seen when he prods Sally while tied up and when he beats up his siblings, making up excuses for doing so), oversees the violence in the family and then secretly sells human remains at his gas station as barbecued meat (oh, and ere’s some second-viewing horror for you: Franklin ate some of that meat). He also really hates getting his hands dirty, as evidenced by his line about how he can’t stand killing, so he leaves that to Nubbins and Leatherface. He’s just a really great, colourful and memorable character; I’d argue that he gives the best performance in the whole film.

Before we get to Leatherface, I also want to mention Grandpa Sawyer. He has a very minor role in the film, but the family’s patriarch is almost corpse-like. In fact, during the chainsaw pursuit, Sally comes across Grandpa in the attic along with Grandma’s decaying corpse and I thought he was just another corpse in the Sawyer house on my first viewing. Then when they drag Grandpa down for dinner later I thought they were just lugging a corpse around, so imagine my surprise when it turned out that he was actually still holding on to life! It was a “WTF!?” moment for me for sure and just another element of what makes that dinner scene so unsettling. Are we meant to believe that this is actually happening, or has Sally gone truly insane?

Then there’s the most enduring aspect of this film, the main attraction himself, Gunnar Hansen’s Leatherface. He’s such an interesting character and unlike most slasher villains. For one thing, he is obviously very mentally handicapped in this film (Gunnar Hansen attended a special needs school to study the students in preparation for the role) and is incapable of speech. In spite of this, he is arguably the most dangerous and sadistic member of the family. At one point, Drayton berates Nubbins for leaving his brother alone, implying that when left to his own devices Leatherface will just murder people indiscriminately. Like Nubbins, he has an identifiable but twisted logic in the film – from his perspective, people just keep invading his property and he’s defending it. He’s even visually shaken after killing Jerry, freaking out and looking out the windows to see if there are any other trespassers because he can’t understand what’s going on. However, he also clearly relishes in killing as he has a look of pure bliss as he carves people up. He even has some rudimentary, animalistic cunning, such as when he lures in Kirk and Jerry to their deaths by making pig noises. His mask is also a crucial aspect of the character. There are apparently three different masks worn in the film, each representing a different aspect of Leatherface. The most obvious are the iconic “killing” mask, which he wears to kill Kirk, Pam and Jerry. It has a really simple but great look in this film, like it’s very worn out and made in a very rough manner. It also shows off his eyes and mouth enough to allow Gunnar Hansen to be quite expressive. It might work best for me because it isn’t really designed to be a “scary flesh mask”, it just gets to be scary on its own merits (also, holy shit, I saw a face transplant article on CBC a while ago and they have pictures from the procedure… you could straight-up make a face mask like Leatherface’s in real life). He also wears two masks which are meant to make him look like a woman, which are possibly even more unsettling than the killing mask. He wears these during the dinner scene and they are meant to convey that Leatherface is trying to be “domestic” rather than a butcher at that time.

Despite being very simple on the surface, there’s a lot that you can say about The Texas Chain Saw Massacre which makes it far more than just a really well-made slasher film. The most obvious theme to me is the divide between urban and rural, or society and savagery. Sally and her friends represent “civilized” urban society and when they venture into rural Texas it’s like a strange, unknown world to them. It feels like an American gothic story to me, where all of the evils of society are hidden just beneath the veneer of normalcy. Everyone in rural Texas is portrayed a being at least somewhat eccentric, from the straight-up psychopaths in the Sawyer family, to the drunken and crazy locals just hanging out at the graveyard. The land itself is even run down, from the shut-down slaughterhouse, to the quaint gas station, to the old homesteads that the group witnesses. The Sawyer family’s savagery seems like more of an extension of the reality that they live in, rather than some aberration unique to them. In their world, you have to do what you can to survive, including hunting to eat. I wonder if this is perhaps why Tobe Hooper decided to make Franklin a paraplegic to further show the divide between these two worlds. In the civilized world, Franklin can get by well enough, but as soon as he enters the rural parts of Texas he is getting attacked by the elements and the locals. Even his old family home can’t accommodate him in his state and he is ultimately killed by Leatherface because he’s unable to flee on the rough terrain. On a similar note, Kirk and Jerry are the men of the group and would traditionally be seen as the “protectors”, but the fact that they are overpowered almost instantly by Leatherface shows the might that he has in his own environment. Considering that the film has an early reference to cattle being killed with a hammer at the slaughter house in the “good ol’ days”, the fact that both of the men are killed this way clearly is meant to equate them with cattle in the Sawyers’ eyes.

And speaking of the slaughterhouse, that leads into another theme of the film which resonates with me regarding how capitalism is ruining the lives of rural people. Nubbins mentions that his grandfather and Leatherface used to work at the slaughterhouse and were legendarily good at killing cattle efficiently with a hammer blow. However, when bolt guns were introduced into the business it made the process even more efficient and presumably caused Leatherface’s job to be redundant. You could even argue that Grandpa’s living corpse is symbolic of the family’s refusal to let go of their past despite capitalism making their living obsolete. You can also see this economic depression in the fact that the Hardesty homestead has been abandoned and left unsold; no one wants the property anymore. Drayton also mentions when kidnapping Sally that he had to go back into the gas station and turn the lights off, because the price of wasted electricity is so expensive that it could put him out of business. You can connect the dots pretty easily for how a family on hard times with a talent for killing cattle would turn to murdering and eating people, all because economic opportunity has been drained from the community. You could also argue that this is why Nubbins takes Franklin’s refusal to pay for a photograph as such an insult. He believes that he did a favour for Franklin and gets screwed over for his work. This might even mirror the circumstances of Leatherface losing his job after years of loyal service, so Nubbins might be even more enraged by the snubbing as a result.

The other theme which I find particularly interesting is the concept of family. The traditional family dynamic is twisted in fascinating ways in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. I’ve already mentioned how it’s unique that the film features a family of psychopaths, but it goes much deeper than that. The Sawyers have a traditional southern family, with grandpa as the patriarch and grandma having died some time ago. However, since he’s comatose and unable to lead the family, Drayton has had to take over as the head of the family, handing out abusive-levels of discipline to his brothers when they misbehave. Leatherface’s place is also quite interesting in this family – since the matriarch of the family has died, he wears masks with makeup on them to fill the void in the family. The family dynamic is most clearly felt during the dinner scene, which is clearly meant to be a nightmare version of the idea of “southern hospitality“, only now with human remains strewn everywhere, a family of psychopaths and the attempted murder of the guest. However, as twisted as the Sawyers’ notion of family is, it’s juxtaposed against the family dynamic of Sally and Franklin. Sally doesn’t get along with Franklin very well, in fact she seems to find him to be a burden that she is forced to bear. The only time they have any sort of familial moment is when Franklin asks if she wishes he didn’t come with them, but she clearly lies when she says that she’s just tired. In comparison to the Sawyers, the Hardesty family is more fractured and broken, even if it is more “conventional”.

As you can probably tell, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is far more than just an average slasher film. I don’t tend to like slasher films very much, but I really do love this one – it’s incredibly well made (especially considering the low budget which gets used as an asset rather than a hindrance), deceptively fascinating and deeply unsettling. Its status as a horror classic is undisputed and I would definitely put it up there as one of my favourite horror movies of all time.

8.5/10

Be sure to tune in soon as we move onto the next entry in the series, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2!

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Retrospective: God’s Not Dead – A Light in Darkness (2018)

Welcome back to the God’s Not Dead retrospective! In today’s entry we’re covering the latest, and possibly last, entry in the franchise, God’s Not Dead: A Light in Darkness. After the garbage fire that was the previous film, could it be possible for this series to get even more insulting? Read on to find out…

The poster carries on the same design aesthetic as the previous films in the franchise. I like it a lot more than the previous one – visually, it’s a far more interesting design.


God’s Not Dead 2 released on April 1st, 2016 and was (unfortunately) only an April Fool’s joke if you paid to see it. That said, it landed in the year that evangelicals would help to put Donald Trump into office as the 45th President of the United States, a result which has been… contentious to put it lightly and which has shed a light on how brutishly tribal, steadfastly political and stunningly hypocritical the evangelical church is in America. I do not think it an exaggeration to suggest that the God’s Not Dead franchise helped to bring about these turn of events in their own small way. These films were just reflections of things that evangelicals already believed, but (as per Sean Paul Murphy) Pure Flix was drawn to creating inflammatory content to generate more ticket sales, which fanned the flames and drove evangelicals to act.


Even before November 2016 rolled around, a third God’s Not Dead film had been confirmed, although the premise was not set. David A. R. White stated that “We’ve just been in a lot of prayer and trying to figure out exactly what God wants number 3 to be. Because you know we don’t just want to just do what we want to do, we really want to follow where God is leading on these movies.” Now, details on what exactly happened are hard to come by, but Harold Cronk (who directed the previous 2 films), Chuck Konzelman and Cary Solomon (the writers of the previous 2 films) were not brought back to work on the new film. Instead, an unknown writer/director by the name of “Michael Mason” was brought on to spearhead the third entry in the franchise, signalling a new direction for the franchise.


David A. R. White returns as Pastor Dave, this time taking on the film’s leading role. Benjamin Onyango would return as Pastor Jude and Shane Harper would also return as Josh Wheaton, but they both appear in relatively small roles and none of the other major characters from the series (such as Amy, Martin or Ayisha… sigh, so much for my Josh/Ayisha shipping) make any appearance. The new major roles are filled out by John Corbett as Dave’s estranged brother, Ted McGinley as the university chancellor and Jennifer Taylor as Dave’s love interest. The filmmakers also made a big deal about securing Academy Award winning actress Tatum O’Neal in a role, but it ends up being a very minor as one of the board members at the university.

Owing to how hard it is to find information about this film’s production, I actually found some intriguing little tidbits. On the minor end of things, I found confirmation that this film was at one point given the subtitle of “A Light in the Darkness”, but that the “the” was subsequently dropped, presumably because they would have thought it was too long a title. This just gives me a bit more insight into Pure Flix’s marketing ideas and why I was probably on the right track when I was thinking about why they didn’t just call this series God is Not Dead, as they clearly should have. Perhaps more intriguing is the identity of “Michael Mason”, as I found some conflicting stories which suggest that this is a pseudonym for an unidentified director. The candidate which had been suggested was Jon Gunn, director of My Date with Drew, Do You Believe? and The Case for Christ and it was postulated that he used the “Michael Mason” pseudonym because it would have been his 3rd Christian film in a row and might have pigeonholed him as a “Christian director”. Whether this is true or not is debatable, but it’s also worth pointing out that a November 2017 interview with Shane Harper had the film’s director listed as “Jonathan Michael”. Perhaps this an early, half-masked psuedonym before Michael Mason was settled on? Regardless, it’s really interesting to speculate on.

Also, one last thing to note before we move onto the story of the film: this movie bombed at the box office. While the first film had made around $60 million domestically and the second had made around $20 million, A Light in Darkness brought in just over $7 million – less than both of the previous films had made in their opening weekends. Ouch. I feel like by this entry the series’ reputation was already tanked, so there was less interest, not to mention that it was yet another unnecessary sequel. Perhaps most importantly though, the Christian film industry had really kicked into full gear since the release of God’s Not Dead, and as a result A Light in Darkness was beaten out at the box office by fellow faith-based films I Can Only Imagine and Paul, Apostle of Christ, all of which released in a 3 week span around the Easter season (which I commented on at the time). It’s also probably worth mentioning that Black Panther was still tearing up the box office at the time as well.


The film opens with Pastor Dave getting released from jail after the post-credits scene in the last film because… well, we aren’t really told why, but they basically have nothing on him after all. Dave’s jailing creates a controversy about the church being on university grounds. Jude meets with Dave after his release and a couple nights later they hear a brick being thrown through the church window. Dave tries to catch the vandal while Jude goes to turn off the alarm – however, the brick accidentally caused a gas leak which explodes, fatally wounds Jude and burns the church. Dave is left in shock as the university uses this opportunity to try to seize the church grounds in order to build a student union centre, which Dave refuses. As a result, Dave seeks out his estranged brother, Pearce, who is a social justice lawyer and non-believer. With Pearce’s help, Dave goes to court against the university to retain control of the church, while waging a media campaign which inflames further controversy over both sides of the conflict.

Eventually, Dave discovers that a local student named Adam was the one responsible for the gas leak which happened accidentally after taking out his frustrations over the church. Dave has Adam arrested after confronting him, but Dave’s lashing out further hurts his public perception and leads to Pearce dropping out of the case. As Dave’s life begins to spiral out of control, he does some major soul-searching with God and realizes that he’s hurting people with his needless crusade. As a result, he announces that he’s accepting a settlement with the university, drops the charges against Adam, builds a new church elsewhere and just asks everyone to stop fighting one another.

As you can probably tell from this synopsis, A Light in Darkness is… actually a movie for once, not an over-glorified object lesson. It’s truly shocking to see the difference between this film after the last two entries – in fact, a significant chunk of my notes while watching were just me expressing surprise about how plot points are treated with far more nuance than they were previously. I have to give Michael Mason (whoever they are) some credit for just how much better this film is compared to the other two in nearly every way. Harold Cronk was a competent director, but his two films in this series had a very flat, workmanlike quality (and the less said about the scripts, the better). In contrast, this movie immediately demonstrates a considerably more interesting directing style and better cinematography. The script for this film is also miles ahead of the last two entries. In fact, I feel like A Light in Darkness only really has a couple of obvious issues that are worse than in the other films in this series. Worst of all, its pacing is glacial at times and without the batshit insanity or scenery chewing of the previous films, it’s easy to be bored for long stretches of this film. Also, David A. R. White is a decent actor for the most part, but having to carry a whole film on his shoulders seems like a bit of a strenuous effort for him. He had succeeded in the previous two films by being a bit of positive, comic levity combined with strong chemistry with Pastor Jude. However, A Light in Darkness sees Pastor Dave taking on a dark, dramatic role. There are a couple of moments in the film when David needs to display some sort of strong emotion (such as when he’s crying for Jude while the church burns and when he angrily confronts Adam about the fire) but he tends to be unconvincing, like he’s holding back for fear of looking silly. Again, he’s mostly solid though and his chemistry with John Corbett helps to keep things going strong.

I also have to give Pure Flix some credit for actually listening to the criticisms they received this time and using them to actually take a step forward… but just how big was that step? Let’s take a closer look…


One of the first things that will strike you about this movie (assuming you’ve seen the other two entries in the series), is that the portrayals of Christians and atheists are considerably more nuanced. Let’s focus on the portrayal of the Christians first, because that is probably the starkest difference compared to the other films. The Christians in this film are considerably more unsure of themselves and Pastor Dave is even straight-up villainized by the film for most of its second half. When Dave starts a social media campaign to get public support for his cause, this causes an unintended harassment campaign against the university’s chancellor, Elsworth and his family, as he gets doxxed, receives harrassing phone calls, death threats and has his window smashed with a brick. This is an unfortunately realistic example of how Christians can be dicks and how they can cause evil without even intending it. I’m wondering if this was inspired by Christian ugliness that the filmmakers witnessed stemming from their own movies perhaps? To make matters even more complicated, Elsworth is explicitly portrayed as a good friend of Dave’s, and possibly even a Christian too. This doxxing causes Elsworth to violently confront Dave, but the Pastor refuses to relent to help his friend.

Dave just becomes more of a mess from there. Adam texts him anonymously, hoping that Dave will forgive him for starting the fire. Instead, Dave confronts Adam, accosts him, pushes away a security guard and makes a huge stink which is caught on film and tanks his public reputation, but leads to Adam’s arrest… and we’re definitely meant to agree that Dave did the wrong thing here. Again, these should be obvious, but the fact that God’s Not Dead is agreeing with common sense is just so strange to me, they’ve conditioned me to expect the worst. Adam’s girlfriend, Keaton, has been questioning her faith throughout the entire film and it becomes obvious that it’s the actions of the Christians that are eroding that away. She confronts Dave, says that she’s seeing no mercy from the man of God and that Adam is “tired of feeling judged and rejected by the people who should be loving and accepting.” While the film is still clearly on the side of Christians, it at least is able to acknowledge that they’re often their own greatest enemy, rather than the external enemies that the other films leaned into.

The atheist characters are all given far more nuance that in the previous films as well. Dave’s brother Pearce is probably the most compelling character in the film. He has this playful “older brother” routine that he does with Dave in all their interactions, but it’s obvious that there is a tension due to some sort of major falling out with his family’s faith. That said, he helps Dave because they are family. Pearce even gets some digs in on Christians which ring true, such as when he accuses Dave of “playing the victim”. Everything comes to a head towards the end of the film when Dave chews out Pearce for leaving him to care for his parents alone. Pearce reveals that when he was struggling with his faith, no one took the time to help him to sort out his feelings, it left him feeling like no one cared. As a result, he lost his faith, which broke his parents’ hearts. The callousness and inaction of Christians bred tragedy which led to even more tragedies. By the end of the film, Pearce is still an atheist and this isn’t portrayed as some moral failing. He does take his childhood Bible with him, implying that he may go back to searching, but that’s left entirely up to the viewer to speculate.

The other major atheist character is Adam, who is immediately hostile to the church when he’s introduced. This might seem like old hat for God’s Not Dead, but it’s a bit of a misdirection as we are very much intended to sympathize with Adam. At the start of the film, Keaton breaks up with him for belittling her struggles over faith, which leads him to vandalize the church and then accidentally starts the fire when a thrown brick breaks a gas line. He is no Mark from the first film though, Adam is devastated by his part in this and immediately wants to turn himself in to the police. In fact, Keaton is the one who tells him not to for fear of getting into trouble. Later we find out that Adam is so hostile to religion because his mom was beaten by her dad and when she divorced him to get away, the church called her a sinner for it. Once again, we’re given an admission that Christians are the monsters sometimes and that the “rules” aren’t nearly as black and white as some people claim. That said, the pattern with Adam and Pearce is that they are atheists because the church pushed them away from faith, rather than because they have a logical foundation for their belief. Keaton supports this idea when she says that “the whole world knows what the church is against, but it’s getting harder and harder to know what it’s for.” Their experiences certainly don’t represent all atheists or people who fall away from the church, so I’m not sure that the filmmakers “get it” yet – they still don’t seem to understand that the things that the church fights so hard for (eg, homophobia) run counter to the things that it’s supposed to be all about (eg, loving your neighbour). Still, the non-Christian characters are still miles better than anything in the previous two films.

The other non-believing characters are treated in a similarly, mostly-reasonable manner. For example, the university board members actually have a pretty legitimate reason for why they want the church off of the campus – the church was there when the university was founded, but times have changed and now there is an issue of favouring one religion over all the others. That’s a textbook example of Christian “persecution” which is actually just treating them the same way that they would any other religious group. Furthermore, Dave’s arrest had been drawing unfavourable attention and the fire showed that there was violence starting to be committed over the building’s presence on campus. There are even some discussions about whether they might just keep the church on campus for historic reasons, but they decide that it’s better to build a student centre in the long-term. There’s no moustache-twirling, sneering, villainous monologue about how they’re going to kill God this time, they just have a very legitimate concern about favouring Christians over all the other faiths on campus (for an example of why this is reasonable and relevant, take a look at how Christians respond whenever the Church of Satan does anything). On a similar note, it’s also worth pointing out that the conspiracy theorizing of the previous film is mostly gone. In addition to the reasonable motives of the board, Pastor Dave is released before we’re even two minutes into the film because, the franchise has realized, there’s absolutely no reason for them to even arrest him in the first place. This should be obvious to everyone, but the fact that God’s Not Dead is acknowledging it as well goes to show just how different these films has become off the bat.

That said, the film does have some weird, lingering issues when it comes to its non-Christian characters. Early on we have a scene with Keaton and Adam hanging out with their friend Teo and his girlfriend. Teo leads the conversation, chatting about the Mandela Effect at length, which he equates to being as legitimate as the idea of Jesus walking on water. It’s a weird scene, because it’s either completely pointless, or the film is trying to say that the things that non-Christians believe are equally as ridiculous as any supernatural belief in Christianity… except that the Mandela Effect is not in any way a serious scientific belief, so I’m not sure why they had this scene at all. Furthermore, the non-Christian characters specifically get set off whenever Dave says that he believes in “one truth”, which suggests that the filmmakers clearly still believe that non-believers have some sort of knee-jerk hostility to Christians.

In addition to providing more nuance for the atheists and Christian characters, A Light in Darkness also erodes much of the persecution complex that the previous films were cultivating. The acknowledgements that Christians cause issues as well goes some way to establishing this. There is also one famous scene near the end of the film which makes this most starkly clear, where Dave speaks with Pastor Roland at a local, predominantly-black church:

Dave: “What’s important is that Christians stop rolling over all the time, when is it our right to fight? I’m tired of being pushed around. I’m tired of turning the other cheek. […] I’m just saying that I think it’s time that Christians stand up for themselves.” 

Roland: “People were drawn to Jesus because of his love, his patience and kindness. He managed to preach the truth without losing himself in the bargain. He was gentle with the meek and hard as a rock with the arrogant. And when he talked to the foolish, he was patient and never became a fool himself. And he was never proud David.” 

Dave: “This has nothing to do with pride, Roland. And no offence, but maybe you’d understand a little better if you were the one being attacked.” 

Roland: “Brother who do you think you’re talking to? I’m a black preacher in the deep south. I could build you a church with all the bricks been thrown through my windows. […] We cannot respond to hate with more hate. And don’t forget: we are called to be a light in the darkness.”

The message seems clear, even if Dave doesn’t necessarily “get” it at the time: black people have been persecuted for centuries and when the first sign of trouble comes to evangelicals they act like they have a monopoly on suffering. The fact that this film’s title is dropped in this exchange is also proof that this is one of the film’s fundamental messages, and honestly it’s a pretty damn good one. Hearing Pastor Roland talking about not responding to hate with more hate resonates far more effectively than the heavy-handed equating of Grace to Martin Luther King Jr in the previous film. This is also reflected on the God’s Not Dead blog where, after the second film came out, suddenly the tone changed from sensationalist and combative to calm and reflective.

For all the good steps that A Light in Darkness has taken, it still has some major issues gnawing away at it. I’ve alluded a few times now that the filmmakers still don’t quite understand what they were wrong about in the previous two films and, while I give them credit for trying to fix their problems, I can’t ignore how their lingering issues taint this film’s attempts at change. The proof of this is found in this film’s cameos. The only Christian celebrity cameo comes from the Newsboys, who make a very brief appearance on a news program where they make this nonsense metaphor about the symbology of the cross which doesn’t really add anything to the film. Despite this film’s efforts to step up their Christian message, the two main cameos in this film come from the conservative world: Dana Loesch, a spokeswoman for the NRA, and Judge Jeanine Pirro, a Fox News personality. If you have no idea who these people are then you might take this movie’s efforts to improve Christian and non-believers’ relations at face value. However, if you do know them, it undermines this movie’s efforts entirely because they are “two of the most aggressive and combative voices imaginable” and yet are portrayed as the voices of reason throughout the film. The AV Club review of this movie sums the situation up well:

“Frustrated Dave might well be paraphrasing Loesch’s video from last April, where she ranted against Trump protesters who “smash windows, burn cars, shut down interstates and airports, bully and terrorize the law-abiding […] The only way we stop this, the only way we save our country and our freedom, is to fight this violence of lies with the clenched fist of truth.” When Loesch appears in the film, it’s to pull a “so much for the tolerant left” line in flagging the university’s decision. Later, Judge Jeanine gets to voice the film’s moral: “It’s a sign of the time: everybody’s yelling, nobody’s listening.” What she means is that the left is yelling and not listening to the right”.

The fact that Judge Jeanine is the one saying the film’s other moral stands in stark contrast to what Pastor Roland was saying, which puts this film into a major identity crisis. On the one hand, we have a legitimate effort to bring people together, to portray Christians and non-believers in a more respectful and realistic light and to urge its audience to be less divided. However, on the other hand, we have a film which is still in bed with American far right activists and portrays them as being far more reasonable than they are without any sort of irony. The film makes this even more embarrassing during an exchange between Pearce and Josh. Josh says that he was studying to be a civil rights lawyer and Pearce says that he didn’t strike him as a liberal. Josh replies that “I don’t think standing up for the oppressed is exclusive to a political agenda” and that “my beliefs are the foundation of change” because all humans are made in the image of God. He then lets out the ultimate stinker of a line when he says that “Jesus was the ultimate social justice warrior”… whoo boy. What “oppressed people” are you referring to Josh? Are you in favour of the rights of homosexuals? It should be obvious to anyone watching that evangelicals don’t have a good history of standing up for the oppressed, for even being “social justice warriors” and that conservatism is by its very nature uninterested in the rights of minorities. It’s one thing to make the not untrue statement that Jesus supported social justice, but it’s another to say that evangelicals are a force for social justice. These are, after all, the people who voted in, and continue to support, Trump in spite of everything that they profess to hold good and moral.

Combine all of this with the film’s ending, where Dave sacrifices his crusade for the church in order to stop both sides from fighting with one another, and we’ve got a conclusion which seems to run counter to the message that the film had been building towards. “Let’s stop shouting at each other and start listening. It’s the only way that things will get better” could come across as a legitimate call for Christian peacemaking in a time when the country is divided. However, by putting their message into the mouths of out-of-character conservative activists, I have a hard time seeing the film’s ultimate intent as anything but the following: after eight years of Obama, evangelical get their own candidate into power, decide that there’s no reason for anyone to legitimately protest now and are just trying to shut down all opposing views. After all, “stop shouting, start listening” suggests that the people you’re shouting down have something legitimate to say, which is hard to justify when you consider the surge in racist and nationalist movements, or that America is drawing itself dangerously close to fascism.

A Light in Darkness is a confused film. It’s a bit dull at times, but I was actually enjoying myself for the most part. There are moments that I legitimately liked quite a bit, particularly the shot where Dave prays and the church around him melts away into a view of space, getting across the idea of God’s presence without requiring words. It’s the first time in this series that God appears and is actually a loving deity for once, giving guidance to a lost and grieving soul. However, as I have said at length, the filmmakers’ refusal to break from their right-wing associations completely undermines the sincerity of the film’s message. This has led to some very polarizing reviews from audiences, with some fans of the other films disliking it for not being “inspiring” enough, while others appreciated the strides the film took to improve the series. For my own part, I feel like A Light in Darkness is just short of being a truly good film. I never would have expected to say this, but it’s almost too bad that we’re probably not going to get a fourth film – I’m extremely curious to see how the franchise would have evolved given one more try. Oh well, hopefully Pure Flix doesn’t backslide after this film’s tepid reception.

5/10

And here is my final ranking of these films:
1) God’s Not Dead: A Light in Darkness – 5/10
2) God’s Not Dead – 4/10
3) God’s Not Dead 2 – 2/10

Thanks for tuning in for another retrospective series! This one was a bit more torturous than the others just due to the films involved, but I always love writing them. Until next time!

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Retrospective: God’s Not Dead 2 (2016)

Welcome back to the God’s Not Dead retrospective! In today’s entry, we’re going to be looking at the second film in the franchise, the succinctly-titled God’s Not Dead 2 (although I think we all know that it should have been called God’s Still Not Dead, c’mon guys!). After the commercial success of the first film, a sequel was basically guaranteed. However, would the filmmakers be able to overcome their insulting depictions of Christians and non-Christians this time? Read on to find out…

…eh, I don’t really like this poster much. I mean, it’s fine, it gets across the point of the film, but I preferred the more minimalist design of the original.

Considering that God’s Not Dead put Pure Flix on the map and raked in more than thirty times its budget in theaters alone, a sequel was a virtual certainty and was quickly announced by the studio. After the success of the first film, the studio was able to tap some higher-profile actors to fill the main parts, most-notably Melissa Joan Hart (Sabrina the Teenage Witch) as the film’s leading lady. Also filling out the main cast were Jesse Metcalfe, Ernie Hudson, Pat Boone and Ray Wise as the mustache-twirling antagonist, in addition to a few returning cast members from the first film (most notably, producer David A. R. White as Pastor Dave). The first film’s success also meant that Pure Flix was able to get some Christian public figures to appear as well, including Lee Strobel (who had been name-dropped in the first film), J. Warner Wallace and Mike Huckabee.

As for the making of God’s Not Dead 2, I’ve been having trouble finding really interesting information about the making of the film and I don’t want to speculate too much, so take the next part with a bit of salt. Unlike the first film, there isn’t as much information about what actually inspired God’s Not Dead 2. However, considering the content of this movie, I would not be surprised if Pure Flix’s association with the Alliance Defending Freedom played a major role in the creation of this film, which is further evidenced by ads for the ADF in the end credits and on the movie’s website. As Sean Paul Murphy had said previously, Pure Flix’s audience were growing more interested in films with political agendas rather than simply “Christian” films.

It’s also worth noting that the filmmakers were clearly very aware of the backlash that the first film had inspired from atheists. Responding to claims that the God’s Not Dead films misrepresent Christian persecution, David A. R. White told The Blaze “It’s an interesting thing, because, if it wasn’t real, why do they get so offended by it? […] I don’t think it would annoy people if it wasn’t true.” I… what?

David… you know that people get annoyed by lies too… right? Are you so deep into the evangelical bubble that you can’t see anything else? Sigh… I think I’m starting to understand why the “logical” arguments in these films are so unconvincing.

The story of God’s Not Dead 2 picks up a few months after the last film ended and follows a high school history teacher named Grace Wesley. One of Grace’s students, Brooke, comes to Grace for advice because her brother has recently died and she doesn’t know how to cope with the loss. Grace confides that she trusts in Jesus, which helps to prompt Brooke to explore Christianity after she discovers a Bible that her brother had kept hidden. Brooke then asks a question in class about the non-violent protests of Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr, relating them to Jesus, which Grace answers and explains. However, one of her students reports her for doing so, which prompts the school board to try to fire Grace. Grace is represented by a young, non-Christian lawyer named Tom Endler who tries to get her to stand down and concede to an apology. Grace refuses because she believes that she did nothing wrong. Brooke’s parents are then approached by Pete Kane of the American Civil Liberties Union, which wants to represent them in suing Grace with the explicit intent of stamping out Christianity in America once and for all.

Grace is then put on trial for violation of the separation of church and state, with Pastor Dave managing to end up on the jury for the case. Tom mounts a defence by arguing for the historical authenticity of Jesus with supposed “experts” Lee Strobel and J. Warner Wallace showing up to explain as much. Brooke is eventually brought in by Tom and Grace to testify, but she ends up giving further evidence to the ACLU’s case by revealing that Grace had spoken to her about Jesus outside of school. Everything’s looking grim for Grace when Tom comes up with a baffling final gambit, putting Grace on the stand as a hostile witness and badgering her to tears about her faith, saying that they’re going to silence, fine and jail all the Christians. Somehow, this causes the jury to rule in her favour, much to the embarrassment of the ACLU. After the credits, Pastor Dave is arrested for not handing over sermon transcripts earlier in the film.

As you can probably tell from the plot summary, God’s Not Dead 2 ditches the previous film’s interconnected storylines in favour of one main plot. There are still a couple subplots, but these are given far less prominence than in the first film and all tie directly into the main plot. This, honestly, is probably to the story’s overall betterment, as I did suggest previously that God’s Not Dead could have used some stronger focus overall. Honestly, in a lot of ways God’s Not Dead 2 is an improved sequel – the production values are a bit better, the performances are all good across the board, the story’s a bit more focused and the scope and stakes get raised enough that this doesn’t just feel like a straight rehash of the first film. There were also some subplots that I thought were legitimately really good – basically everything revolving around Martin (Paul Kwo, reprising his role from the first film) is great as we witness him grow from an awkward and excited young Christian to one who is resolved to preach, even when it costs him the respect of his family. I also found elements of Amy’s subplot (Trisha LaFache, also reprising her role) to be interesting, as she grapples with her faith after her cancer goes into remission. Unfortunately this intriguing aspect of her character gets dropped pretty quickly and, while Amy remains in the film for quite some time thereafter, she doesn’t really add anything interesting in the rest of her screentime.

The only problem is… well, God’s Not Dead 2 sets itself up in such a manner that an objective and detached review of it is basically impossible. Like I just said, technically this film has the pieces needed to be better than the first movie. Story-wise, I found its courtroom melodrama and proselytizing duller than the first movie’s classroom drama, despite the overall tighter focus of the sequel. I think this simply comes down to the rivalry of Josh and Radisson, which was far more interesting than Grace and Tom’s flat characterization and Pete’s scenery chewing. That’s not really the main issue though, as it’s the actual themes of the story that lets this movie down so hard and make the two hour runtime into even more of a slog. Once again, the filmmakers ideological bent is on full display, but this time they really lean into it, to the point where it straight-up ruins their movie from conception. The plot is just plain dumb and stretches credulity to the breaking point. That said, if you’re a part of the conservative evangelical bubble then you might not even notice that there is an ideological bent to this movie at all – or worse, you might even feel validated by it.

Let’s just get right into the portrayal of atheists in this film. It’s clear that the filmmakers were aware of the atheist backlash that the first film inspired, but it seems that it only inspired them to double-down, because God’s Not Dead 2 is way more offensive to atheists than the previous film was. This is evident from the very first scene of the movie through the portrayal of Brooke’s parents, Richard and Catherine. Brooke is clearly struggling and withdrawn because of the death of her brother, but her parents are totally over it and don’t seem to care anymore at all. Right off the bat this is a step beyond anything that the filmmakers had portrayed in the previous film. They imply once again that atheists are incapable of love, but now they also seem to believe that they can’t even care about their own children!? I was watching and wondering if this might just be a coping mechanism for Brooke’s parents, but no, this movie straight-up implies that atheist parents don’t give a shit about their own kids. I’ll be honest, I was floored by the very start of this film, it was unbelievable that the people behind this film would think this of atheists. I mean, as I have reiterated multiple times now, they were aware that atheists were offended by how they were portrayed in the first movie, so you’d think that the right move would be to be more careful in how you represent people going forward to make sure that there are no misunderstandings, right? Well, we’re getting the message loud and clear here, the filmmakers clearly think that atheists are heartless automatons. I had thought that the filmmakers just sucked at portraying non-Christians in the previous film, but here we get to see right off the bat that everyone involved in the production of this movie is totally incapable of empathy. Brooke’s parents never get better throughout this movie. There is no sympathy from or for them. During the trial, Richard is more worked up about his daughter getting “preached to” than the fact that his own son died. Seriously, shouldn’t atheists mourn harder when someone they know and love dies? Hell, at the end of the last movie, we were supposed to think it a good thing that Pastor Dave and Jude were celebrating the death (and last-second conversion) of Radisson. Just… how could they be so lacking in empathy for people who have different views?

Also worth pointing out is Martin’s father who shows up for one brief, but important scene. After Martin converts to Christianity, his father arrives to take him back to China because he believes that Martin is disgracing his family and that Martin is throwing away his future and the sacrifices that his family has made for him. It isn’t really explained why he believes this, but I think that the audience is supposed to understand that China persecutes Christians and implies that this is the end-result of state-sponsored atheism. When Martin refuses to recant, his father slaps him (which now means the God’s Not Dead films are two for two when portraying non-Christians of other nationalities as violent degenerates, hooray!), disowns him and then immediately returns to China. In all honesty, this scene works far better than the domestic abuse sequence in the first film and could have maybe been an affecting scene if there had been any sort of reasoning given for Martin’s father to be so vehemently anti-Christian. Instead, it just comes across as more of the same “atheists are bad and hate Christians just because” message. Give me the God’s Not Dead movie about Martin going back to China to be a minister, that could actually be incredibly interesting if it was written well (although knowing this production team, I have my doubts).

The most prominent atheist character is Pete Kane of the ACLU. For what it’s worth, Ray Wise puts in a deliciously hammy performance, turning every line from Pete into a sneering, sinister proclamation that guarantees that you’ll at least be entertained when he’s on-screen. That said, the material he’s working with is just plain stupid. I’ll get to the fact that the ACLU are the villains in this movie later, but Pete Kane is meant to represent how dastardly and hateful the organization (apparently) is. From his very first scene, Pete is seen as eagerly relishing the chance to make an example out of Grace and to “prove once and for all that God is dead”. He’s not even subtle about it when he’s around Grace and Tom, telling them straight-up that “I hate what people like your client stand for and what they’re doing to our society”. Bloody hell, I know that there are militant atheists who talk like that, but this movie acts like they’re the status quo.

Of course, the film tries to make Pete out to be a hypocrite during the trial when he claims that “Christianity is not on trial here” in his opening statement, despite it being obvious to the audience that this is not the case. To hammer that home, he also makes a big fuss about not wanting to offend any Muslims in the court, dog whistling to the audience the idea that liberals are afraid of offending Islam but hate and attack Christianity. Basically, throughout this movie Pete grins gleefully any time something happens that negatively affects Christians, while looking exasperated any time someone in the defence acknowledges that it’s pretty much a settled fact that Jesus existed. Hell, he looks downright shocked when J. Warner Wallace reveals that he was an atheist and that “I’m a Christian because it’s evidentially true” (in your opinion, sure).

As cartoonishly evil as Pete Kane is, his characterization is echoed in a number of smaller atheist authority figure roles in this film, all of whom are totally hostile to Christians. Whenever the news media gets shown in the film, the newscaster goes on a tirade about how Grace and Christians are zealots, fundamentalists and that the only extremists we need to worry about are the hardcore Christians. This portrayal of the media just felt so weird to me because it has the tenor of a Fox News segment, but with right-wing talking points swapped out for insults that get thrown at conservative evangelicals. Maybe I just don’t know the American media and how sensational their reporting style is, but I feel like this might just be the filmmakers projecting their own media’s style and assuming that that’s how everyone does it.

In addition to the media, the entire school board is immediately against Grace (her union rep even says “What were you thinking?” when asked whether Grace said the “words of Jesus” in class). Principal Kinney is particularly villainous, giving Grace these over the top evil looks and during her testimony against Grace is almost as much of a mustache-twirler as Pete Kane. Kinney is also seen shutting down a student protest led by Brooke in an effort to further silence Christians (that the audience this movie was directed at would be trying to shut down student protests that disagree with their politics less than two years later gives a contemporary viewing some delicious retrospective irony). Meanwhile, when Pastor Dave refuses to hand over sermon transcripts to the prosecutor’s office, the officer overseeing this goes from being fairly casual and routine to something resembling a body snatcher. I’m not kidding, he stands up, stares and ominously asks Dave if he really wants to refuse to comply, before stating that “a nail that sticks up gets hammered down”.

Now before I get into the next section I need to write about the only sympathetic non-Christian character in the film, Tom. We’re never really given his opinion on faith at any point in this film, other than that he’s a “non-believer” at the time when he agrees to represent Grace. Surprisingly, we don’t even get a big conversion scene by the end, although it’s probably safe to assume that he is totally convinced by the pro-Christian arguments as the film, since the movie seems to think that they “proved the existence of Jesus Christ” as the ACLU puts it at the end. The thing about Tom is that he’s just doing his job without letting personal biases get in the way, which shouldn’t be that unusual but… well, this is God’s Not Dead 2 and it’s shocking whenever this series doesn’t imply that a non-Christian eats babies for breakfast.

Anyway, one of the strangest parts about the portrayal of atheists in this film (Tom aside) is that there’s this uniformity to their actions which suggests that the filmmakers seem to think that there’s some kind of enormous atheist conspiracy unfolding in America looking to silence all the Christians. How else can you explain the uniformity of the atheist characters’ hostility to the Christians, their unspoken agreements about what is “unacceptable”, their encroachment into Christians’ freedoms and their certainty that Grace is going to be destroyed from the outset? The way that this film’s plot gets kicked into motion even suggests conspiracy, as the second Grace mentions Jesus in class, a student secretly gets his phone out and texts… somebody about it (it’s unclear who, it could have been Obama himself for all we know), as if this was a surveillance state like North Korea. At worst, a student might mention that their teacher talked about Jesus in class, but odds are that absolutely none of the students would give a shit. Hell, I live in godless, heathen Canada and when I was in high school we had a history teacher throw on a VHS tape about how the Bible was useful for archaeologists – a couple of students in the class scoffed, but that was about it. I know that’s anecdotal, but c’mon filmmakers, do they really think that students would immediately rat her out?

The whole conspiracy angle of the film gets more obvious when the ACLU become involved, as even before Pete arrives the school board discusses how the ACLU has been waiting for a case like Grace’s for years, as it provides them with the opportunity they need to silence Christians for good. The choice of the ACLU as villains for this film, especially when painting them as hypocritical and evil bastards, is truly baffling and I can only think that it’s a result of the filmmakers’ ideological leanings and their association with the Alliance Defending Freedom. The ACLU often sticks up for the rights of LGBTQ people, access to abortion and the separation of church and state, which turns them into an obvious target for conservative evangelicals, despite the fact that the ACLU defends the rights of pretty much anyone, Christians included. To put it simply, “essentially all of [the ACLU’s] positions irritate social conservatives […] the ACLU supports free speech including the free expression of religion; what they oppose is government funding or lending official (or the perception of official) support to religious activities in violation of the Establishment Clause. Furthermore, the ACLU has defended the rights of religious bigots to espouse those views, although it does not condone the contents of their speech.” Interestingly, the ADF are totally absent in this film, as is any sort of public support for Grace (up until Brooke organizes a protest for her). Does anyone remember Kim Davis, and how her refusal to issue wedding licenses landed her support from public and political figures, such as Mike Huckabee (who shows up in this film to fellate the evangelical audience for a vote)? The film instead makes it seem like no one supports Christians in order to make it look like they’re a minority class.

 
 

Anyway, when the ACLU gets involved in the film, they sway Brooke’s parents to sue Grace by promising that “there is not an Ivy League admissions board that could resist giving Brooke a spot because she was involved in a landmark separation of church and state case”. This was another one of those moments that made my jaw drop at the audacity of this film. So the entire Ivy League is populated by militant atheists who only admit similarly-atheist students? Bloody hell, is it any wonder that evangelicals are accused of being anti-intellectual? Similarly, the prosecutor’s office demanding sermon transcripts is treated like this grand next step on the road to making Christianity illegal, the sort of thing that evangelicals always say is definitely coming. This scene is actually based on something that happened… but it feels like the writers totally jumped the gun, because “Houston mayor Annise Parker subpoenaed sermons from five churches in her city in an ill-advised reading of rules about churches, tax law, and politics. The subpoenas were rescinded a few months later, after widespread outcry and several lawsuits, as well as a national campaign to mail Bibles and sermon notes en masse to the Houston mayoral offices.” Simply put, they take an event that happened, but change the outcome to make it seem like the atheist conspiracy is all-powerful and overreaching in America and that the audience’s freedoms could be snuffed out any day.

This conspiracy theorizing is borderline-hypocritical when you consider that one of this film’s defences of the historical veracity of the gospels is that there wasn’t a conspiracy involved in their authorship. Their justification for this is that since there were too many witness involved, someone would slip up. It’s actually not a particularly great argument, since conspiracy isn’t exactly the issue. I’d definitely recommend diving into the history of the gospels and early church, but in short the text of the gospels we have today were all very likely second-hand accounts, would likely have been coloured somewhat by the burgeoning schools of thought within the young religion about who Jesus was and what he represented, and weren’t even necessarily meant to be what we would now consider as “historical” accounts. Anyway, this conspiracy defence seems odd when you consider that this film is throwing in its own atheist conspiracy theory, although the filmmakers would probably say that it’s self-evident when you look at all the “persecution” in America. I’ll just let Sister Rose Pacatte of the National Catholic Reporter comment on this aspect of God’s Not Dead 2: “the premise of both films is nothing more than politicized religion as a vehicle to feed conspiracy theories.” Ouch.

 
 

All of this feeds into the fact that God’s Not Dead 2 is explicitly a more political film than the first was. In his interview with The Blaze about the film, David A. R. White said that this film was “all about making an impact” and that it was an intentional move for the story to shift to the public square. It shouldn’t be surprising that this film was released in the middle of the 2016 presidential leadership race, with the aforementioned Mike Huckabee clearly making a cameo just to appeal to the evangelical vote. By portraying government overreach and painting all authority figures as openly hostile to Christians, the filmmakers also incentivize their audience to mobilize against these institutions in order to “take back America”. After all, Tom’s opening argument in the case is that the phrase “separation of church and state” is not mentioned anywhere in the constitution or bill of rights, which seems to imply the idea that America was founded as a Christian nation that has morally eroded over time. Tom’s opening statement is a baffling argument which is only technically true, but the First Amendment makes it crystal clear that not only is separation of church and state enshrined within the law, but it was also a principle of the nation’s founders. Hell, if we’re going to be nitpicking constitutional amendments, then the Second Amendment is free game as well. This is another moment that just feels like the filmmakers won’t understand the people that they’re writing about, because arguing technicalities about church and state separation does not feel like the sort of thing that a non-Christian lawyer would engage in – rather, it sounds like the sort of weak argument an evangelical might espouse impotently to other evangelicals.

In the first film, there were plenty of characters who were atheists or hostile to Christians, but it was always framed as a personal and individual thing. In God’s Not Dead 2, this is reframed into being a political issue. The scene where Grace mentions Jesus in class does so in a manner which also correlates the message of Jesus with that of Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr. Taken by itself, this is a reasonable comparison to draw. However, the film also very explicitly wants us to see Grace and her situation throughout this film as being a parallel to Jesus (even having her echo the words of Jesus during his crucifixion, asking God if he has forsaken her), and therefore implies that the struggles Christians face in America are on the same level as the Indian independence and black civil rights movements. It should go without saying that this is unthinkably deluded and borderline insulting when you consider that they’re appropriating progressive icons to attempt to justify their conservatism – not to mention that only months after release this movie’s audience would, by and large, be voting for a man who was blatantly racist, xenophobic, authoritarian and immoral.

I also find it quite interesting that, for a movie which so blatantly proclaims the existence of God in its title, He is completely absent in this movie. Don’t get me wrong, the characters talk about God all the time, how good He is, how much of an impact He has on their lives, etc… but God doesn’t actually do anything in this movie. At least in God’s Not Dead, God was very clearly present in Dave and Jude’s storyline, even if it did end up portraying him as some sort of Final Destination murder-force. In comparison, Grace’s victory is portrayed as a surprise, but there isn’t any sense that it was some sort of miracle from God. The film also makes arguments about the historical existence of Jesus, but these are far less frequent and given less prominence within the story compared to Josh’s lectures. Furthermore, at least the first film seemed concerned about the fates of its non-Christian characters. In God’s Not Dead 2, the only people that convert are the ones who were immediately receptive to the Christians’ message, and the rest of the non-believers are nothing more than evil, unrepentant obstacles to “the truth”. As a result, God’s Not Dead 2 is arguably not really a “Christian” film in the sense that it’s not about the virtues of the faith – rather, it’s a political film about the imagined struggles of the American brand of evangelicalism.

Add it all up (the disingenuous portrayals of Christians and atheists, the conspiracy theorizing and the political rallying cries) and you have a film which puts the evangelical persecution complex on display greater than just about any other film out there. This also ties into this not really being a “Christian” film at all – after all, the conflict in the movie is entirely driven by the persecution that all of the Christian characters are subjected to by the rest of the world (Amy is the only exception, although her very minor crisis of faith is resolved the next time that we see her). Grace makes this clear in what is clearly intended to be the film’s core message: “I would rather stand with God and be judged by The World, than stand with The World and be judged by God” (“The World” in evangelical nomenclature meaning the necessarily sinful and immoral culture outside of Christianity which clashes with the “true” values of the Bible). This also applies to the numerous court cases listed in the film’s end credits, similarly to the first film. Naturally, the film’s audience takes the presentation of these cases at the filmmakers’ word, although if you look into them closer, it becomes clear that these cases revolve around Christians not understanding discrimination in business settings, Christians refusing their professional obligations as healthcare providers, or involve the filmmakers intentionally leaving out crucial details entirely to make the cases seem like persecution when they clearly aren’t (if you’re curious about all of the cases, The Friendly Atheist has a comprehensive rundown). You can see the persecution complex on full display on the God’s Not Dead website, which for years was documenting similarly one-sided accounts of Christian persecution throughout America, and had this exceptionally nasty, sneering, combative tone that it would apply to everything, even when celebrating the film’s release.

If you’ve checked out any of those links to the film’s blog, you might also have noticed how this movie constantly markets itself. God’s Not Dead 2 has more product placement than a Michael Bay or Adam Sandler movie, the only difference being that it’s exclusively advertising for products in the evangelical bubble (a bubble which, might I remind you, heavily commodifies religious adherence and expression). Just look at this list of really obvious plugs throughout this film:

  • We’ve got Lee Strobel showing up during the trial, is placed as an expert we should look up to, literally name-drops his books in a manner that doesn’t make sense within the scene, and then gives us a sales pitch about why he’s an authority on the historical existence of Jesus.
  • We’ve got J. Warner Wallace showing up in a similar manner, name dropping his books and then being poised as a credible expert with evidence that Jesus is God (which he never really gives us, so I guess you’ll have to buy his book).
  • We’ve got the Newsboys who show up to perform a new song and hope that it becomes another #1 hit after their success with the first film.
  • The end credits directly advertise for the Alliance Defending Freedom in the event that you feel persecuted for your faith.
  • In addition, the film advertises itself no less than 3 separate times during its ending, telling the audience to once again text “God’s not dead”, and even offers a handy, prebaked hashtag for everyone to send out on social media in order to generate buzz for the film. Bloody hell…
And, because this is the Christian media industry, this isn’t even the extent of this film’s monetization. In addition to the film itself, this movie has its own branded soundtrack, study guide (including a student version!), 40 day devotional, a novelization, t-shirts, audiobooks, church kits, a series of books based on the movies, even a goddamn silicon bracelet. Movies like this are their own mini-industries within the evangelical bubble, much like Star Wars is to the wider culture.

I’ve had to do a lot of thinking to give this movie a final score that I could feel secure in awarding. It’s easy for this film’s audience to say that people who hated this film merely disagreed with its message (in fact, it’s probably playing into the filmmakers’ intent doing so). On the one hand, I have to give the film some points for being fairly professionally made, and Ray Wise is always entertaining to watch. However, the film refuses to present itself in an enjoyable way to anyone outside of a very narrow political worldview – in fact, it’s openly hostile to worldviews that don’t match the filmmakers’ own. As a result, I feel more than justified in saying that this film is straight-up trash which exists only to stoke evangelicals’ persecution complex and to cynically rake in cash and political fervour in doing so. I would rather watch a freaking Bibleman video than this movie again.

2/10

Bibleman, Bibleman! Does whatever a Bible can! This isn’t a joke, it’s real guys! Can’t afford sets? Proselytise! Look out! Here comes a Bibleman!

Be sure to tune in again soon as we come to the final entry in this series: God’s Not Dead: A Light in Darkness!

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Retrospective: God’s Not Dead (2014)

It has been quite a while since my last Retrospectives series. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had plenty of ideas for write-ups during the past several months (some more conventional than others), but I kept getting drawn back to the same series: the God’s Not Dead franchise. Hoo boy… Considering that this is a series rooted inextricably in ideological arguments, hopefully you can understand why it took me so long to get around to this one. To be upfront, I’ve heard a lot of commentary on this film, but I tried to not let it colour my opinions on the film too much going in – I wanted to see if there was any merit to all the vitriol this film has inspired. So strap in, we’re going to start this at the beginning, with 2014’s God’s Not Dead.

The film’s poster is decent, I have to admit. I could do without the crowd at the bottom, but there’s a certain evocative element to this design which I can’t deny (even symbolically, down to the black/white contrast), plus it makes sense for the film’s story… Good job, I guess.

God’s Not Dead was produced by Pure Flix, an evangelical movie studio and distribution company which had been creating Christian films for about 10 years before God’s Not Dead. According to Russell Wolfe, co-founder of Pure Flix, the concept for film came about when the studio was looking for ideas and were suggested to make a film about apologetics. Around the same time, the Alliance Defending Freedom (a conservative, evangelical lobbying group which has been labelled as a hate organization by the Southern Poverty Law Center) were telling the producers stories about apparent Christian persecution, which inspired the campus setting of the film.

That’s the official story at least. I can’t be the only one who has heard of the urban legend of the “atheist professor” while growing up in the church. God’s Not Dead cribs liberally from this myth, even down to some of its arguments which, as one writer puts it, makes this the first film based on a chain email. Kelly Kullberg has also argued that the producers of God’s Not Dead stole her own life story, which caused her to sue them for $100 million. This lawsuit was ultimately dismissed, with the judge claiming that the film and her own script weren’t similar enough to constitute copyright infringement. Whether this is because Kelly Kullberg was also ripping off the atheist professor story or not is unclear.

God’s Not Dead ended up being a surprise hit at the box office in its limited theatrical release, bringing in around $65 million on a $2 million budget, despite having no real mainstream star power or marketing associated with it. As I have written about in the past, this success came about from the free viral marketing that churches offer these kinds of projects – the pastor tells their congregation to go see this movie because it will affirm their faith, and so the film has a built-in audience that it doesn’t even need to dedicate a marketing budget towards to reach.

The story of God’s Not Dead is structured in a manner similar to Paul Haggis’ Crash, with a number of characters’ narratives intersecting, and all centred on an overarching theme, in this case Christianity and faith. The main plot revolves around a student named Josh Wheaton who takes a philosophy class taught by the notoriously hostile Jeffery Radisson. Radisson tries to get everyone in the class to declare that “God is dead”, but Josh refuses and is forced to defend his position over the course of the next three lectures, while Radisson grows increasingly hostile at his defiance. Meanwhile, we’re treated to a few side-plots: Amy is a hostile liberal journalist who gets cancer, her boyfriend Mark is a psychopathic and self-interested businessman (there isn’t really any thrust to his scenes beyond that), his sister Mina is Radisson’s girlfriend (or wife maybe? It isn’t clear at all and I have heard conflicting answers) who is growing apart from him because she is a Christian, Ayisha is a secret Christian within a very traditional Muslim family, and Pastor Dave and Pastor Jude can’t get their car to start when they want to go on vacation (seriously, that last one is a subplot which gets a lot of screentime during this film).

Eventually, this all culminates in Josh winning the debate against Radisson, most of the atheist characters convert to Christianity and Radisson gets hit and killed by a car, being converted on his deathbed by Pastors Dave and Jude (and thereby justifying all the screentime they’ve had throughout the film on their seemingly pointless subplot). Everyone rocks out at a Newsboys concert and the film encourages everyone to advertise the film for them (again, seriously).

With the plot out of the way, let’s get to the positives for God’s Not Dead first. For the most part, this is a very competently-made film. The directing and production values are better than you’re probably expecting – it certain looks like an independent film, but not an amateur made-for-TV movie. The acting is also mostly solid across the board, with only Josh’s girlfriend putting in a clearly bad performance (although she is dispensed from the plot pretty early on, luckily).

Other than that though… hoo boy. I’m just going to get the technical issues out of the way first; the editing is really weird sometimes. For an early example, Radisson is handing out pieces of paper to his class to sign “God is dead” on, when the film suddenly cuts away to Pastors Dave and Jude arriving at the airport. This cut was made for seemingly no reason, and I can’t understand it because it deflates the tension of the classroom scene. The only justification is that at the end of their scene the pastors say “God is good”, which is then contrasted by Radisson saying “God is dead” before cutting back to the classroom, but this doesn’t justify that first, abrupt cut in the slightest. There are weird edits like that sprinkled throughout God’s Not Dead, in part due to its story structure. That said, the script is definitely the main issue in this film, and it brings down an otherwise competent production. I’ll get to the broader implications of the script later, but for now aside from the pastors and maybe Josh, the characters are, on the whole, very one- or two-dimensional at best, serving more as object lessons rather than fully-realized characters. Obviously, that is a major issue for a character drama like this. Furthermore, this film’s script is just plain dull for the most part, stretching itself thin over an almost 2 hour runtime. I recall that around the 40 minute mark I was feeling like the movie was starting to drag, and then I saw that there was still more than an hour left and I just thought “How!?!” Honestly, the film could have done better by focusing much more on the main plot, maybe building some tension by actually giving us some insight into Josh’s research (he just sort of shows up with his big presentations each time), and show us more of the strain that this stand was apparently putting on him (he loses his girlfriend due to ridiculous circumstances and Josh says that he is falling behind on his school work because of it, but we never really see how this is really weighing on him).

Still, God’s Not Dead would have probably just come and gone without a fanfare if that was all that was wrong with this film’s script, but I think we all know that that is far from the case. God’s Not Dead fails spectacularly in two main departments: its apologetics and its portrayal of Christians vs non-Christians, both of which I feel are rooted in the filmmakers’ ideological bases. I feel like the filmmakers were expecting a negative reaction from the secular world when they made God’s Not Dead, but I do not think that they were expecting that the most vehement drubbings of the film would be from within the Christian world itself, due to these two major flaws.

Let’s start with the apologetics. Both Josh and the film itself are quite explicitly tasked with proving that God exists, but their arguments in favour of God are not particularly compelling. Josh presents three lectures which I’ll boil down simply:

  1. The Bible always contended that the universe didn’t always exist, whereas science assumed the universe had always existed until the Big Bang was discovered, implying that science shouldn’t be taken as an absolute. He also argues that something had to have caused that Big Bang to occur in the first place. When a student asks who created God, he says that that’s based on an assumption that God must be created.
  2. When faced with Stephen Hawking’s assertion that the universe created itself, Josh uses some quotes to undermine Hawking’s authority and suggest that since Hawking also said that philosophy was dead, taking him at his word would contradict Radisson’s entire career. He then says that evolution doesn’t prove where life came from and claims that in a cosmic sense, life and all of evolution has occurred very suddenly (that particular argument was just confusing when watching and, on review, makes no sense – it’s just plain wrong, evolutionary time isn’t measured on a cosmic scale, it’s measured on an… evolutionary scale).
  3. Josh argues that evil exists because of free will and that we can join God in heaven because He allows evil to exist temporarily (also very funny in this part, the filmmakers use a slide of The Creation of Adam by Michelangeo and airbrushed Adam’s dick off so as not to offend any prudish evangelicals in the audience). He argues that without God there are no moral absolutes, although Radisson would say that cheating on a test would be “wrong”. Josh quotes Dostoyevski, saying that “without God, everything is permissible”. Josh then makes the claim that “science has proven God’s existence” without any basis, and gets Radisson to admit that he hates God, to which Josh asks “how can you hate someone who doesn’t exist?”

I don’t really want to spend a lot of time breaking down these arguments (if you’re interested, there’s a good article on Psychology Today which does just that), but suffice to say that they don’t even come close to proving that God exists, despite Josh’s assertion otherwise. Most of his arguments are just turning atheistic arguments back at themselves or creating an intellectual uncertainty that an individual could choose to fit God into. At best, his arguments convey that we don’t know where life came from, so if you want to believe in God then that’s your choice, but that’s still a failing grade when your stated task is to prove the existence of God. Even worse, while Josh could conceivably make a case that God exists in general, he instead makes his task basically impossible by immediately restricting himself to proving the existence of his own Judeo-Christian God. This results in quite a few potential objections that could have been made towards Josh, but are never brought up, such as that his argument over evolutionary leaps sounds an awful lot like he’s trying to justify the creation narrative, of which there is absolutely no evidence. It’s clear that the filmmakers did some apologetics research (there’s even someone credited with this in the film crew), but I question whether they put the film’s claims up against real philosophers or academics. If they did, then it certainly does not come across in the film, because the arguments are clearly weak. All that said, considering that this film is clearly directed towards the evangelical bubble, it’s expecting its audience to already have formed the same conclusion as the filmmakers, meaning that the need for strong proof is basically non-existent.

The other big issue with God’s Not Dead‘s script is its portrayal of Christians vs non-Christians. Let’s start with the Christians: they’re all portrayed as intelligent, respectful, happy, even-tempered people which everyone should aspire to be like, from the applauded heroism of Josh, to Ayisha’s faith in the face of persecution, to the eternal optimism of Dave and Jude. The one exception to this is Josh’s girlfriend, Kara – she is set up as someone who is a Christian, but when Josh decides to stand up for his faith she constantly orders him to just lie and sign the paper. She’s also a total idiot: she picked a crappier school in order to be with him, she has the next 50 years of their life together mapped out and him failing this philosophy class is enough to derail the whole plan. Kara is an awful, stupid shrew of a character who only exists to up the stakes for Josh when she breaks up with him (although considering how he reacts, they weren’t going to last 50 more years anyway) and to contrast against the “virtuousness” of Josh. I’d argue that, based on the way Kara is written, we’re meant to her as”lukewarm” or “not a real Christian”, since she does not give God priority in her life.

In contrast, let’s look at our atheist characters… individually, because holy crap is there a lot to say about all of them. Let’s start with Mark, played by ex-Superman Dean Cain – Mark is an unabashed, self-described asshole businessman who only cares about making himself better off. In his introduction, he won’t even give directions to his girlfriend unless she will do something for him in return (I keep having to make this same aside throughout this review, but again, seriously). Even when his girlfriend tells him that she has cancer, he accuses her of “breaking our deal” that their relationship is just about getting something out of each other for personal reasons, and then immediately breaks up with her because a cancer-striken girlfriend is a total drag. Oh, and he also has a mother with dementia who he refuses to see because she won’t even remember that he was there. And to put a cherry on top of it all, it is very much implied that Mark is the one who hits Radisson with his car and then leaves him to die. Mark is a deplorable, selfish, unsatisfied, loveless person who is very clearly meant to be the object lesson for Josh’s assertion that “without God anything is permissible”. Put simply, Mark is meant to represent the fundamentalist idea that atheists are amoral (it’s a pervasive enough idea that even atheists tend to think it’s true), but is such a cartoonish dick that you have to wonder if the filmmakers really think that there’s anyone like this. Look, I shouldn’t have to say that being religious doesn’t make you a moral person any more than being an atheist makes you amoral. In fact, if the filmmakers had done some actual philosophy research, they would have known that ethics and morality are an entire school of thought in their own right which doesn’t require a religious background.

Next we’ll look at Amy, Mark’s girlfriend who is a gotcha journalist and blogger. Amy is clearly intended to be a left-leaning character, although thinly drawn and from the perspective of someone who obviously doesn’t understand why a leftist might legitimately hold those kinds of beliefs. This is shown early on when Amy ambushes… sigh… Willie Robertson (of Duck Dynasty fame) and his wife. Her interview questions consist of the following: does he hunt (duh), what gives him the moral right to maim animals (“I don’t maim ’em, I kill em!”) and what does he say to people who are offended that he prays on his TV show (he shuts her down with Bible verses). Naturally, Willie throws out some way-too-eloquent-to-be-real answers and Amy doesn’t even respond or react to them with her own questions or follow-up. Look, obviously there are anti-hunting people, just like there are people who don’t want to see prayer on TV, but these are definitely a very small minority – most reasonable people don’t really give a shit about either. Now, what if Amy had been upfront about the sorts of things that actually rile people up about the faith of the Duck Dynasty crew, the sorts of things that a real journalist would probably be interested in capturing in an interview? Would it have seemed like the secular world is just targeting people of faith unjustly? Would his rebuttals have seemed to reasonable when he’s trying to explain that he doesn’t hate gay people? Somehow I doubt it.

Anyway, Amy gets cancer out of nowhere and spends most of the film grappling this grim reality after Mark dumps her. By the end she’s back to her old tricks, sneaking into the green room with the Newsboys before a concert and asking the band “How can you sing about God and Jesus as if they’re real?” Umm, because they believe that they are, duh? The band then throws out some more very obviously scripted answers which cause Amy to break down and convert out of absolutely nowhere. If Mark is meant to represent the amorality of atheism, then Amy represents the liberal media. However, in addition to making Amy a really poor journalist in general, the filmmakers once again show that they don’t understand why Christianity is so often “targeted” by the media by not realizing that it is the beliefs associated with Christians which come under fire (such as homophobia or, ahem, anti-intellectualism), rather than belief itself.

Rounding out the main atheist cast is Jeffery Radisson, Josh’s philosophy professor, representative of the “liberal elite” in education… I have a ton of notes to get through on this one because he is so, so bad. Before we even meet him, Josh goes to enrol in his class and is discouraged from doing so because Radisson has such a history of anti-religious fervour that the entire school is well aware of it. Somehow Radisson has never been disciplined for being blatantly discriminatory, even though he starts every semester off by trying to get everyone to sign a paper to say that they agree that “God is dead” (the act of which, he reveals, is worth a whopping 30% of the students’ total grade!?! What kind of a bullshit class is this?). Radisson seems simultaneously shocked when Josh denies this, and smug in his belief that a first year philosophy student won’t be able to prove the existence of God.

As events unfold, a number of things about Radisson’s character become more and more clear to the viewer. First of all is that he is incredibly hostile and clearly nursing a personal grudge, which is truly apparent when he stalks and confronts Josh after class on a couple occasions and tells him that he’ll freaking destroy his future for defying him. Radisson ends up being straight-up dictatorial, wanting all his students to fall in line with what he believes and turning into a giant man-baby in the face of any sort of dissent. This is also demonstrated in Radisson’s relationship with Mina, a former student of his who he somehow fell in love with despite the fact that she is a Christian! During a faculty dinner party, Radisson constantly belittles Mina and her faith for no other reason than because he is a smug, misogynist dick, which the entire faculty goes along with (because they are all atheist monsters as well, even down to shark-like glances at Mina when she pipes up about her faith). When Mina (understandably) breaks up with him, Radisson says that he won’t accept or allow Mina to leave him, a move which obviously doesn’t work. I mean, who aside from a narcissist or a sociopath would think like that?

As Radisson’s life just falls to pieces, between Mina leaving him and Josh “beating” Radisson in each debate, it’s revealed that Radisson is such a militant atheist because when he was 12, his mother died of cancer. God didn’t answer his mother’s prayers or his, so he hates God for taking her away from him, a fact which proves to be the coup de grace in the final debate. This makes Radisson demonstrative of the infuriating fundamentalist belief that “there are no atheists”, since they can’t even conceive of the reasons why someone could logically and reasonably not believe in God. The end of the film seems to suggest that his experiences have caused Radisson to undergo a fundamental change in his life and he goes to try to reconnect with Mina before changing his life and becoming a better person. Just kidding about that last part, the filmmakers have him get hit by a freaking car and make a deathbed confession to Pastors Jude and David (justifying their role in the plot and implying that this was all part of God’s convoluted murder plan), rather than provide first aid to the severely injured man. It all makes Jude and David come across as callously perverse in a sense, as they say that this deathbed conversion is a cause for celebration – I mean, I understand their logic, but a dude just freaking died here.

Beyond all that, Radisson is just further proof that the scriptwriters don’t understand the kinds of people this movie is supposed to be portraying, nor did they bother to consult any. I doubt there’s any atheist philosophy teacher who hates God so much that he would avoid even discussing him. I mean, if I was in that class I would take the invitation to sign “God is dead” as a teaching tool to show the class that you’re not supposed to take anyone’s word for granted – this is a philosophy class after all, which is supposed to be about the art of solving problems using logic. Radisson also seems to hold quotes from scientists such as Stephen Hawking (even on subjects he is not accredited for such as theology and philosophy) to a level bordering on reverence. When Josh dares to challenge Hawking’s belief that the universe created itself, he scoffs at Josh’s insolence. It’s almost as if the scriptwriters believe that an atheist believes that science or scientists are inerrant on the same level that evangelicals hold their Bible. Even the philosophical quote that makes up the film’s title, “God is dead” from Nietzche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, is botched in this film so badly that I had to look up to make sure that my interpretation of it wasn’t wrong (it wasn’t). Radisson claims that the phrase means that it is settled that God does not exist, nor has he never existed. Rather, this quote is tied to a very specific time and place – the advent of the Enlightenment and modernity at the turn of the 20th century had brought about social changes which were causing belief in God to plummet in the Western world. As a result, the concept of an “absolute moral reality” (God) was now meaningless, which would lead people into nihilism. As David Kyle Johnson puts it:

“Radisson doesn’t know what the phrase ‘God is dead’ means. […] He thinks it means that ‘God never existed in the first place.’ The phrase, coined by Friedrich Nietzsche, means nothing of the sort and in fact has nothing to do with God’s existence. Instead, Nietzsche was trying to argue that belief in God no longer affected how people live their lives; specifically, God was no longer used as a moral compass or a source of meaning: If only Radisson, and the makers of the film, had bothered with a four second Google search.”

Oh and I would be totally remiss if I forgot to mention the worst subplot in the film, the one revolving around the only non-Christian religious character, Ayisha’s father, Misrab (is… is that intended to be a pun on miserable? Bloody hell…). From his introduction, Misrab comes across as controlling and traditionally conservative in his Islamic faith, most notably by forcing Ayisha to wear a niqab in public and questioning her when he sees someone make casual conversation. From her introduction Ayisha shows that she does not want to wear the niqab, taking it off whenever her father is not around to see her. Misrab comes across as very sinister from little more than the way that the camera frames himself and Ayisha. It is later revealed that Ayisha has secretly converted to Christianity when we see her listening to a sermon by… Franklin Graham!?! Oh what the literal fuck were the filmmakers thinking when they dropped that name bomb here? Could they be any more tone-deaf? Again, bloody hell, this is the worst subplot in the whole damn film. Anyway, Ayisha listens to Graham’s sermon and then her brother sneaks up on her for absolutely no reason, sees what she’s listening to and then tells Misrab. Misrab goes into a rage (presumably because she’s listening to other religions, but who knows, maybe he’s suitably pissed that she’s listening to Franklin bloody Graham) and begins angrily slapping Ayisha in an incredibly uncomfortable domestic abuse sequence that ends with him throwing her out onto the streets as both of them cry at the circumstances that led them to this outcome. As villainous and reprehensible as Misrab is, I can at least understand where he’s coming from here and see that what he’s doing is breaking his heart, rather than just being cartoonishly evil like the atheist characters. I realize that this sort of awful shit happens, but bloody hell, what does it say about the scriptwriters when the only non-white family in the whole movie is a stereotypical, misogynist, domestically abusive Muslim family, especially considering the sort of audience this film is supposed to be catering towards?

Part of the problem with Ayisha and Misrab’s subplot is that I question whether the scriptwriters really knew what they were doing with it, or whether they just threw it in for an example of Christian persecution and an opportunity for some serious melodrama. I feel like the main reason this was added to the movie was because most of Josh’s proofs of the existence of God could apply to Islam as well, so the filmmakers felt the need to show that they were just as wrong as the atheists. Islam ends up being a contrast to Christianity – whereas the Christians are free and don’t hate women, the Muslims come across as dangerously old-fashioned and violent. The thing is though, this subplot is disingenuously one-sided. For example, while the film portrays Islam as being stifling and oppressive to women, I have seen and heard numerous stories over the years of women who have left the Christian church because of the way that it treats women. The sort of Islamic tradition on display in God’s Not Dead is a clearly conservative one rooted in “sharia law”, which is not too far off from the sort of theocracy that American evangelicals seem to hypocritically push for. Furthermore, Misrab tries to comfort Ayisha early in the film, saying that:

“It’s hard living in their world and being a part of it. A world you can see but can’t touch. I know they seem happy, but know that when you look around at all these people, there is no one who worships God, not the way he deserves and demands to be worshipped. We must never forget who and what we are. That is the most important thing.”

That statement could have just as easily been given to, say, Paster David and no one would question it, but I’m not sure the filmmakers even realize how their depiction of Muslims in this film really isn’t far off from the reality of Christians. After all, how many LGBT youth have been disowned or thrown out of their houses by supposedly Christian families for coming out of the closet*? There’s just so much disingenuous cognitive dissonance in the portrayal of Christians and Muslims that it’s just as insulting as the characterization of atheists.

If I haven’t made it obvious, I feel like a lot of this film’s failings stem directly from the filmmakers’ skewed evangelical ideology. This is quite evident throughout the film as I have already stated, from the lack of understanding of basic philosophy (in a movie about a philosophy class), to the arguments convincing only to someone who already believes in them, to the insulting depictions of “the other”. It even shows up in the little moments throughout the film – at one point, Josh and Pastor Dave estimate that, out of 80 students in Radisson’s class, Josh is the only one who has ever been to church. This is a preposterous estimate considering that nearly 80% of Americans are Christians, but it belies the belief shared by evangelicals that they are an oppressed minority (growing up in an evangelical household, I certainly believed this too). As Alissa Wilkinson said, “White evangelical Protestants, who make up the lion’s share of the so-called faith-based audience, are the only major religious group in America who believe they face more discrimination in America than Muslims do. And nearly eight in 10 white evangelical Protestants believe that discrimination against Christians is as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities”. This is made all the more obvious by the end credits, which list a number of “examples” of Christian persecution in America… if you count business discrimination, largely revolving around refusing to serve homosexuals and providing health care for abortions, as “persecution”.

The filmmakers’ conservatism also plays into some of the film’s failings. Now, I don’t believe that there was an explicit intent to make God’s Not Dead into a piece of conservative propaganda, but the filmmakers very clearly fall on that side of the political spectrum, from the people they choose to credit onscreen (Lee Strobel, Franklin Graham, Willie Robertson, etc) and those that influenced the film off-screen (the Alliance Defending Freedom). This leads to such previously mentioned failings as having a Muslim character listening to Franklin Graham, to having Amy be a left-wing caricature. Sean Paul Murphy, a scriptwriter for Pure Flix, actually might have some insight into how politics were influencing the studio’s direction by the time God’s Not Dead was being produced:

“I grew up watching indie films of the 80s and 90s, those filmmakers managed to make art with small budgets because they had a passion for the medium. It’s not the budgets. It is a disregard for the art of filmmaking. And faith films will not get better until the audience demands something better, but they tend to evaluate films solely on the message itself. As for the counterproductive hatred of atheists and other non-believers, I tried to buck that trend. In Hidden Secrets, the first film produced by Pure Flix (but its second release), my co-writer and I sought to create a fuller, more sympathetic portrayal […]. Nowadays, however, the audience reward films that fight the Culture War for them.  It is easier to generate anger than compassion. I have no interest in that.”

As a result, we’ve got a film with aspirations to sway agnostics towards God, which claims that it has empirical evidence for His existence, but which fails to even understand the positions of those it is arguing against. Meanwhile, it draws in Christians with cameos from celebrities within the evangelical bubble, has a cross-promotion with Christian music label Inpop Records (which provided the film’s soundtrack, including the title song), sets up a blatantly cynical viral marketing campaign which encourages the audience to tell everyone to watch the film and provides an affirmation that everyone’s out to get the poor, innocent Christians. After all, the conflict in this film stems from a hostile atheist forcing his beliefs on a Christian, when that Christian was content not to force them on anyone.

In summation, God’s Not Dead is just a boring movie to watch, with a crappy script and extremely problematic portrayals of Christians and non-Christians at its core which undermine any sort of debate which they may have been trying to foster. It’s not even like I fundamentally disagree with the premise of the film (I do believe in God as well), it’s more the filmmakers wrongheaded notion that the world is suppressing Christianity that’s the issue. There is a line of thought on this film which claims that this film is about “being forced to accept that other people might believe something different”, or that the filmmakers hate atheists and relish in their suffering, but I don’t believe that is the intent. Their conception of them is, however, downright insulting, owing to a profound lack of imagination and empathy. When it comes down to it, I just don’t believe that evangelicals understand why it is that students tend to grow out of the church when they go off to school, and the answer is, quite simply, evangelicalism. When you create such a rigid, dogmatic and fragile structure which requires a denial of science and intellectualism, coupled with a belief that every word of the Bible is infalliable, and that this is the only way to be a true Christian, then of course they’re going to come to the conclusion that it’s all wrong. Maybe if they could actually step outside of the evangelical bubble, then perhaps they could have come up with some stronger arguments for why God is not dead**.

4/10

Be sure to come back soon when I cover the next entry in the series, God’s Not Dead 2!

*I’d recommend reading Unfair by John Shore for some heart-wrenching examples of this.
**Sigh, why did they call this “God’s not dead” anyway, considering the quote it’s named after is “God is dead”? The only thing I can think is that the producers assumed that there wouldn’t be enough audience members familiar with Nietzche’s quote, and therefore “God is not dead” would be less natural-sounding than “God’s not dead”. Again… doesn’t give much credit for the intelligence of your audience.

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Christian Mingle – The Almighty Cockblocker

Recently my girlfriend was looking for a movie that we could watch on Netflix and, surprisingly, asked if I wanted to watch Christian Mingle. She isn’t a Christian herself, so this was particularly unexpected, but as someone who’s interested in crappy movies, this movie had been on my radar for quite some time and of course I said yes to the offer to watch it. It was basically just a reasonably well-done version of one of those low-budget W-network romantic films, with a religious spin on things to differentiate itself. I’m not really interested in a full review of the film (I’d give it a 4/10), but the film’s religious elements did get me thinking because they were implemented in some strange ways which I feel run counter to the intended message.

First off, Christian Mingle is very much an archetypal low budget romance movie. If you’ve seen one of these before, you know the drill – you’ve got your generic white couple who get drawn together, a manipulative mother, an unbearable romantic rival, a stupid conflict that draws the characters apart and which would have been easily solvable with a little communication and common sense, etc. Perhaps the weirdest thing about all of this though is how Christianity has been shoehorned into this archetype. Usually the central conflict comes because of some nefarious falsehood or because of some sort of scheme on the part of the villain, but in this story that means that the villain is… God, or at least this form of Christianity. It might have actually been interesting if this was intentional, but it definitely does not seem like that is the case here.

Much of the early conflict in Christian Mingle is driven by Gwyn feeling like she isn’t “Christian enough” (she’s a Christmas and Easter Christian, but that still makes her Christian) and Paul overestimating her devotion to God. Gwyn and Paul fall for each other, while Gwyn tries to learn how to be a better Christian. Interestingly, the film’s focus seems to be primarily directed on Christian lingo, rather than on the actions that would set someone apart and in fact seems to be the villainous mother character’s issue as well. She’s trying to set Paul up with goody-goody church girl Kelly, who’s clearly “in” the Christian group but clearly doesn’t have a connection with Paul like Gwyn does. Then, while volunteering together in Mexico*, Paul finds out that Gwyn isn’t Christian enough and decides that they can’t be together anymore, despite both of them clearly being in love. So, what this film is saying is that because Gwyn isn’t at the same faith level as Paul, they can’t be together? I mean, she basically says she wants to be better, she wants to know God the same way he does. Isn’t this every Evangelical boy’s dream, to save his girlfriend’s soul? Apparently not, according to this movie, because they split and he gets matched up with Kelly for a while.

So what does Gwyn do? She starts praying, going to church, reading her Bible, etc. And then she quits her job because she doesn’t feel honest marketing products she doesn’t believe in (as the Common Sense Media overview of the film puts it, “Why does no one ask if there are clinical trials to back up the product’s claims?”) and goes and volunteers full-time in Mexico. As a result, she apparently reaches a point where she’s “Christian enough” and Paul seeks her out on his own accord… and reveals that he loved her all along. So, wait, would he have gotten back together with her if she hadn’t completely changed her life for him? Would he have gotten over his own barriers and accept her in order to make love work? Who knows, because the movie’s story conveniently swerves to avoid having to actually answer this! Hell, it would even have been interesting to me if they had done something to suggest that this was supposed to be a metaphor for God’s love and that he seeks her whether she believes the “right” way or not, but obviously this kind of film doesn’t have any sort of ambition to it.

As I’ve probably hammered home by now, the biggest issue in Christian Mingle is that it really harps on this exclusive form of Christian belief that Gwyn fails to measure up to, although the film never really says what that involves outside of loving God. I’m not sure if this is just Evangelical dog whistling, or if the film just thinks that if it doesn’t take a stance at all then it will be able to reach a wider audience. This makes me wonder why the hell Gwyn’s faith maturity is such a big deal, because she clearly is game to grow. The aforementioned Common Sense Media’s review put it well when they said that “most followers of Jesus tout the claim that God loves everyone, which is a policy of religious inclusiveness, but this plot hangs on the exclusionary position born-again parents take when they fear their son is being wooed by a non-believer”, and not only that but the film seems to reinforce that exclusionary message. Everyone has to begin a journey of faith somewhere, not to mention that spiritual growth develops over a lifetime, so why does everyone expect Gwyn to be fully developed in order for she and Paul to have any sort of relationship? It’s just a baffling message and I can’t understand why it is treated like a given assumption throughout the film, unless it’s just pandering to the mindset of the hardcore Evangelical bubble.

Furthermore, the film really drops the ball on what a Christian life should look like. In addition to making the Christian characters the real villains of the piece and having Christianity and God become the obstacle which is preventing love from being achieved (without any sort of self-consciousness about this message, I may add), God barely seems to have any real positive effect in the lives of the characters in the film. Like, Gwyn says that the Christian characters are all so happy and different, but that doesn’t really seem to be the case. Again, Paul’s mom is uptight, Kelly is clearly a jealous schemer and most of the Christians are portrayed in a manner which I can only describe as “low budget TV romance quirky”. Again, if you’ve seen enough of these films, you’d know what I mean – characters who are supposed to be fountains of humour but whose actions make them feel inhuman. Even Paul himself is quite bland and feels tethered by his faith, rather than liberated, and he is only actually interesting when he’s breaking free of that shell to be with Gwyn. The film also doesn’t help its case when it reveals that practically every other character in Gwyn’s life is secretly Christian, most notably Gwyn’s sassy black friend, Pam. As a result, we don’t really get any unfulfilled non-Christians to compare the faithful to. The result of all of this is that God basically becomes window dressing in a film which is clearly intended to actually be about Him. Everyone’s talking about God, but He has no actual presence in the film, which doesn’t help the resulting perception that Christian Mingle is about “authenticity […] to a specific way of worship”.

Obviously the film has other issues (the fact that it’s basically a paid advertisement using faith as a springboard being most notable), but I felt like these ones here are the most central to the film’s failings. Like I said in the intro, it’s otherwise just a competent made for TV romantic film, if you’re into that kind of thing. However, the one thing that it does to differentiate itself is handled really poorly when you apply any sort of critical thought towards it… y’know, assuming that they were actually trying to make Christianity and God look appealing anyway.

*Or, well, a super cheap cowboy set doubling for Mexico. Seriously, I laughed my ass off at this part.

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Retrospective: Jurassic World (2015)

Welcome back to the final entry in the Jurassic Park retrospective! In this entry we we will be looking at the latest film in the franchise, Jurassic World. After years of false starts, could the Jurassic Park franchise rejuvenate itself for a new audience? Read on to find out…

There was a more “traditional” Jurassic Park poster, but this was probably the big one and demonstrates how the franchise’s marketing has shifted in the 14 years since Jurassic Park III.

Following the release of Jurassic Park III, the franchise entered a protracted state of development hell. Spielberg and Johnston hinted at a number of ideas that they had for sequels, including pteranodons attacking the mainland as hinted at the ending of Jurassic Park III. However, development seemed to shift away from following-up on Jurassic Park III‘s loose threads and onto other ideas. One of the first which seemed to gain traction involved the dinosaurs spreading uncontrollably, with Sam Neill, Jeff Goldblum and Richard Attenborough reprising their roles and the lovely Keira Knightley being rumoured to play a grown up Lex Murphy. Stan Winston’s studio moved forward with special effects planning, filming locations were scheduled and actors were signed on, and it seemed like Jurassic Park IV was underway.

However, not all was well on the project. A script couldn’t be agreed on, perhaps because the central premise was bonkers – pretty much every story that they came up with revolved around some sort of genetically modified dinosaurs being used as mercenaries and wielding guns. Drew McWeeny, who saw an early version of the script, probably said described the situation the best: “I think it’s well-written and certainly inventive, but I also think it just might be the single most bugfuck crazy franchise sequel I’ve ever read, and I’m not sure we’re ever going to see this thing onscreen. It just doesn’t seem possible that Universal would make something this vigorously whacked out.” Suffice to say, the film continued to have issues putting together an acceptable script and its production dragged on longer and longer. Years after the fact, concept art from this time in the film’s development leaked online, which featured a variety of ass-ugly dino hybrids.

Between 2006-2008, a variety of stories, scripts and filming rumours were bounced back and forth, but still nothing was materializing. Then, on November 4, 2008, Michael Crichton passed away and it seemed like the general consensus was that the franchise should die as well. However, rumours surrounding a fourth film persisted regardless, with Johnston stating in 2010 that there were plans in place for another trilogy.
It wasn’t until early 2012 that Jurassic Park left development hell and began to materialize into what would become Jurassic World. Retrospectives veterans Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver were brought on to script the project after the success of Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Brad Bird (of The Incredibles, The Iron Giant and Mission Impossible 4 fame) wanted to work on the film, but was preoccupied with Tomorrowland, so instead he suggested that producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall consider Colin Trevorrow. Trevorrow had only directed one full-length film at this time, Safety Not Guaranteed, but the producers were sufficiently impressed by it that they brought him on board. Juan Antonio Bayona, director of the tsunami disaster film, The Impossible, was also considered, but was unable to commit to the project. He would eventually be brought on to direct the sequel, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. Trevorrow became involved with rewrites of the script along with Derek Connolly, and they incorporated three ideas that Spielberg wanted – a functional theme park, a human who has a relationship with trained raptors and an escaped dinosaur antagonist. A few scenes were also inspired by sequences in The Lost World novel, namely the velociraptor motorcycle chase and the Indominus Rex’s ability to change colour.

Chris Pratt was cast in the lead role of Owen Grady, a role he landed just prior to his big breakthrough in The Lego Movie and Guardians of the Galaxy. As a result, he was inadvertently the first real “movie star” to lead a Jurassic Park film, an inadvertent situation that the marketing was quick to capitalize on. Bryce Dallas Howard, an actress I admire who (at the time) had been looking for her big break as a lead actress for about a decade, was cast as the female lead, Claire Dearing. The film features two child leads played by Ty Simpkins and Nick Robinson, who play Claire’s nephews who are visiting the park. The film’s human antagonist is Vincent D’Onofrio as Vic Hoskins, who wants to use the dinosaurs for military operations. Rounding out the main cast is Irrfan Khan as Simon Masrani, the owner of Jurassic World after the death of John Hammond. The only returning character is B.D. Wong’s Dr. Henry Wu, who had a small role back in the original Jurassic Park as the scientist responsible for creating the dinosaurs, and who returns here in a small but important role.

The story of Jurassic World picks up in the present, where John Hammond’s vision of a dinosaur theme park has been realized and has been a fully-functional success for years now. The film follows Claire Dearing, the park’s administrator who is preparing to launch a new attraction involving the park’s first hybrid dinosaur, Indominus Rex, but there are security concerns regarding how dangerous it is. She is asked to have the park’s raptor handler and trainer, Owen Grady, to come and inspect its paddock to ensure that it is safe. Meanwhile, Claire’s two nephews, Gray and Zach, travel to the island to see her, but she is too busy with work and they end up having to sight-see together. While Claire and Owen are inspecting the Indominus paddock, the Indominus engineers an escape and the pair then have to try to stop the rampaging beast, protect the safety of the park guests and find Gray and Zach.

If the previous two films in the franchise were meant to be distillations of what Jurassic Park is, you would think that dino-carnage is the only thing that actually matters in this series. However, the dino-carnage in Jurassic Park only mattered because of a number of other elements which made the film so much more than those b-movie roots – strong characters, spectacle, a compelling narrative and a fascinating sci-fi hook. Jurassic World recaptures at least a couple elements of this formula which the other two sequels had lacked, and is definitely owes more of its structure to the original film than any other movie in the franchise. In addition to the theme park angle, it also explores some ideas which were largely brushed aside in the other sequels, such as the theme of humans tampering with genetic engineering.

Seeing a fully functional park is definitely cool and easily one of the best aspects of Jurassic World. It actually takes 40 minutes for things to start getting bad, so we get some time to see attractions and how the park operates. While it isn’t as interested in the spectacle and logistics of running a theme park as Jurassic Park was, it does use this to help ratchet the stakes up as the film progresses. As things get worse and worse, the guests’ safety becomes a concern, as does the fate of the park itself, which can’t survive another major PR disaster. That said, the portrayal of the park and its safety is also very questionable, and I’m pretty certain that this wasn’t intentional either. Like, how has the Mosasaur never jumped into the crowd and killed anyone yet? How have the raptors never jumped out of their enclosure’s low walls or dragged the handlers down by their poles? Didn’t Jurassic Park insist that raptors were basically diabolical? And why does the gyrosphere ride have no rails and allow people to drive around virtually endlessly amongst herds of dinosaurs? Even the Jeeps in Jurassic Park were on rails. These are just a few of the weird issues that permeate throughout Jurassic World‘s portrayal of its titular park, and while they’re really just small niggles, they’re just weird, distracting and rather obvious engineering problems.

The other fantastic idea that Jurassic World presents is the idea of a hybrid dinosaur. In the novel, genetic engineering was a more important element of the plot than the actual dinosaurs were, so the franchise probably should have exploited this element a long time ago*. The Indominus Rex makes for a truly fearsome antagonist, to the point where I don’t know how future films in the franchise are going to manage to live up to it. I mean, any dinosaur antagonist will feel like a step down now, and human antagonists have never been compelling. What makes it so fearsome is its unpredictability and high intelligence – the twist that it is part-raptor was quite clever and makes for a great “Oh shit” moment when it turns Owen’s pack on their human handlers. It also doesn’t hurt that the Indominus Rex is brutally violent. It immediately leaves an impression with its first victim, who you can see getting his leg ripped off as the Indominus devours him. Moments later, it chomps down on a helpless security guard without mercy. Then when the ACU try to contain it, it annihilates the squad and one gets messily devoured while blood showers the camera. These first couple scenes really establish how nasty (and questionably PG-13) the Indominus Rex is, and the film is always at its best when it is involved in the action.

Remember how I said that strong characters were one of the core elements of Jurassic Park? Well… Jurassic World did not get that memo, and it suffers greatly for it. Owen does some cool things, but he’s such a generic American action hero – he’s always right, he’s a man of action, he is brash and standoffish, he doesn’t adhere to authority he disagrees with, etc. One would hope that more of Chris Pratt’s natural charisma would get to shine through, but unfortunately it is mostly buried underneath a bland character. Claire is similarly just an archetype, the workaholic woman who learns to ease up over time. Bryce Dallas Howard does her best (and kind of succeeds), but the role is… questionable to say the least – I’ll get to that later though. As for the two kid characters, Zach and Gray, they live up to the series’ legacy… which is to say that they have one character trait and are otherwise useless to the plot outside of being a burden. Gray is implied to be a high-functioning autistic genius who is obsessed with numbers, but this never really actually impacts the plot any. Zach is his older brother, who is just an insensitive dick for most of the film until he decides to become a better brother.

Outside of the leads, the new owner of the park, Masrani, is actually pretty cool. He actually takes responsibility when things go south and is surprisingly heroic… I just wish that he got to do more before his unfortunate death. The character of Lowry is also a mixed bag – on the one hand, he actually has some good comic relief moments, particularly his subverted “action romance scene” moment. However, he’s also borderline insufferably meta, being an extremely obvious audience surrogate and Jurassic Park fanboy who makes no sense within the context of this universe. He is kind of funny the first time you see the movie, but he just gets cringier on repeat viewings.

Vic Hoskins is also so terrible that he brings the movie down along with him. The character himself is just irredeemably evil for the sake of being evil, to the point where he sees dinosaurs attacking the innocent guests and grins about it. The moment he appears on screen you know that a) he’s going to be the bad guy, and b) he’s going to get munched on before the film ends. More crucially though, Hoskins is the vector through which the film introduces its idea of having raptors trained as military weapons. This idea was already tenuous enough in Aliens, and here it makes even less sense. Like, there are a host of really obvious reasons that real world militaries are turning to drones and cyber technology rather than training animals for combat (reliability, cost, practicality, ethics, etc). Really, this is the sort of idea where creating genetically engineered humans might actually make sense at some point within the Jurassic Park universe, but the technology is clearly not there in this film. It’s just an awful subplot which unfortunately only gains prominence as the film moves towards its conclusion and weakens the latter-half of the story.

That’s part of my problem with Jurassic World – it has some clever ideas, but it often just decides to take the dumb or lazy route for the sake of convenience. Maybe the most eye-rolling example of this is that everyone’s radios/phones stop functioning properly at the absolute worst times. This is an inexcusable trope in most films when it happens once, but this happens at least four freaking times in Jurassic World. Even worse, Zach and Gray’s phone won’t get any reception one minute, but then the next it suddenly works and alerts the Indominus Rex to their position because convenience. There’s also a moment where Masrani is told that, despite being the owner of Jurassic World and InGen, that he’s not authorized to know what genetic modifications were made to the Indominus Rex, a claim which he doesn’t even question, because the film wants that to be a twist later. The characters also make just so many stupid decisions for the same reason – because it’s what the plot needs. For example, after being told to return to the park, Zach drives off in the gyrosphere with Gray and, after seeing a hole torn in the fences, decides that that would be a good time to go off-road. Oh, and predictably, the gyrospheres have no override system, or anything to stop them from leaving their enclosure. Hell, the whole plot hinges on character stupidity – when Owen and Claire think that the Indominus Rex has escaped, instead of calling the control room to figure out where it is, Claire speeds off in her car and then calls them, because the plot requires her to be a) away from the Indominus Rex paddock, and b) in the control room. Even worse, Owen and a couple workers decide to saunter into the paddock before finding out where it is, which ultimately leads to the Indominus Rex escaping.

This issue of laziness and convenience is so bad that I feel like I need to break down a whole sequence just to demonstrate how egregious it gets. So, first off, Owen and Claire are being hunted by the Indominus Rex in the ruins of the old park when Masrani flies overhead with his helicopter. This causes the Indominus Rex to give chase to the helicopter, which it somehow gets ahead of. Then Owen and Claire suddenly teleport to be right beneath the helicopter as it chases the Indominus Rex into the aviary. Pterodactyls and dimorphodons escape and begin flying towards the park guests. This is where the editing (unsuccessfully) tries to mask the ridiculous leaps in distance, time and logic that unfold in order to make this scene work. The dinosaurs pursue Zach and Gray’s jeep back to the park, while Owen and Claire somehow run to some command centre** before the flyers can make it to the guests and attack. Zach and Gray make it back and then minutes later, Owen and Claire arrive with the ACU before things can get too out of hand. And then, to make things even more silly, Owen and Claire make out while people are getting mauled all around them. The time/space dilations here are on the level of the latter seasons of Game of Thrones, where they’re clearly just throwing logic out the window to craft the scene that they want and to get characters where they’re needed, and expecting us to be too passive to notice. I’m not sure if this is on the script, the editing, or Trevorrow’s direction, but it is Jurassic World at its worst.

In regards to Trevorrow’s direction, it is generally decent throughout. He takes a cue from Jaws in hiding the Indominus Rex from full view until well over an hour into the film, which was a wise decision. However, his action sequences are hit-or-miss affairs. Unlike Spielberg, whose films both had long and extremely tense action set-pieces, Trevorrow’s action sequences are far more frequent, but lack the same sort of punch. The first two Indominus Rex attacks are exciting, but brief, and final battle is exciting (in part due to its fanservicing), but most of the action sequences don’t really stand out all that much to me. Sure, they’re bigger and louder than the dino carnage of the other films, the body counts are considerably larger, and they somehow managed to work multiple explosions into a film involving dinosaurs, but they lack that same level of investment and excitement. This might be because the story isn’t compelling enough, or that we don’t really get all that invested in the characters, rather than that the sequences themselves fall flat on their own.

The special effects are also worth noting in Jurassic World. Previous Jurassic Park movies always relied skillful utilization of animatronics, puppetry and top-notch CGI to bring the dinosaurs to life. Jurassic World, by contrast, switches almost entirely to CGI for this purpose, and it really shows. The creatures are clearly rendered with far more detail, but they don’t feel nearly as real to me. Contrast the gallimimus scenes in Jurassic Park and Jurassic World as an example, there’s something about how the dinosaurs and characters interact which doesn’t hit the same chord. The early sections of the film impress that “no one’s impressed by a dinosaur anymore”, which is a clear commentary on the status of blockbusters since Jurassic Park III came out. Since then we’ve been inundated with so many CGI-heavy blockbusters that relying exclusively on CGI just makes Jurassic World lose any sort of special feeling that the series used to enjoy. Hell, say what you will about Jurassic Park III, but the spinosaurus was an animatronic in half of its action scenes, and a bloody impressive one at that. As far as I can tell, animatronics were used a grand total of once in Jurassic World, when Owen and Claire find a wounded apatosaur. This was actually a wise time to use animatronics too because it makes the scene feel more real and sad as it slowly expires in the characters arms.

Finally, as I alluded to earlier, it wouldn’t be an I Choose to Stand post without mentioning the film’s, um, troubling gender relations. There have been many words said about whether Jurassic World is sexist, but is this merited? Thanks to memes, most of this conversation was boiled down to “Claire wears heels, because sexism”, but is there more to it than that? Well, the film portrays Claire as a workaholic, uninterested in other people and too busy to have normal relationships with people. She is also very clearly written to be obsessed with maintaining control. The character’s entire arc is about learning to stop putting so much value into her career and more into getting a relationship and having children. This could be a totally fine arc if handled well, but Jurassic World makes some really strange decisions which make me question whether it is just archetypically sexist, or just ridiculously ignorant of the implications its narrative is conveying. Like, there’s literally a scene where Claire’s sister tellers her that she should have kids, which Claire says is unlikely, but her sister insists that she will and that it is worth it. I mean… are they aware how condescending this scene comes across? Are they aware that this is in any way a potentially touchy subject? As The Daily Beast puts it, “Jurassic World is not about corporate greed, anti-militarization, crass commerciality, disrupting the food chain, or dinos eating the shit out of people. No. It’s about a woman’s ‘evolution’ from an icy-cold, selfish corporate shill into a considerate wife and mother.” Meanwhile, her relationship with Owen just reinforces this – he is belligerent, but always one who takes control when he can, which seems to be what attracts her to him. He’s basically the definition of a manly man, and she isn’t able to be truly fulfilled until she ditches her icy exterior for him.

Beyond Claire’s characterization, the death of Zara also has attracted some questions of sexism, mainly due to the way the rest of the film treats women and just how over-the-top her death is. While I personally feel like this is another clear instance where Trevorrow was just tone-deaf about how this might come across, I’ll just leave you with this quote from him where he is oddly excited by the notion that he’s going to get to murder a woman in spectacular fashion:

“It was the first time a woman was going to die in a Jurassic Park movie. We’re an equal opportunities bunch of murderers! So we felt, ‘Alright, let’s make it the most spectacular death we can possibly imagine – let’s involve multiple animals from sea and air…’ I love this moment so much. We’re playing on the audience’s expectation and jadedness. […] But we definitely struggled over how much to allow her to earn her death, and ultimately it wasn’t because she was British, it was because she was a bridezilla. […] In the end, the earned death in these movies has become a bit standard and another thing I wanted to subvert. ‘How can we surprise people? Let’s have someone die who just doesn’t deserve to die at all.'”

All-in-all, Jurassic World is kind of a mixed bag for me. On the one hand, it’s hard to deny that it’s probably the best Jurassic Park sequel we’ve gotten… and yet, due to its bland characters, lazy plot and general stupidity, I kind of hate a good deal of it. It’s an odd situation, where I appreciate the first half of The Lost World enough to give that film some love, and I truly enjoy the dumb fun of Jurassic Park III, but find myself turned off by how lazy and generic Jurassic World gets at times. The film could just have been so much better if they trusted in their audience’s intelligence a bit more.

6.5/10

So, what does the future look like for Jurassic Park? Well, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom releases this year, so it doesn’t seem like we’ll need to wait another 14 years until the next entry. That said, Fallen Kingdom looks… intriguing. The first trailer definitely turned me off – on the one hand, at least it’s trying something different and we’ve been told that the bulk of the plot is being kept secret for now, but is the volcanic eruption the crux of the plot? Trying to evacuate the dinosaurs? I’m sorry, but that doesn’t sound like the basis of a particularly compelling film to me. However, the Super Bowl trailer dropped just days before this was posted (and after I had written this retrospective), and was considerably more intriguing. Looks like dinosaurs on the mainland again? Maybe as a more central part of the plot, it could work this time.

If I was going to write a Jurassic Park film, I’d probably push the genetic engineering element even further forward. The films have kind of ignored the impact of their own tech on the wider world. For example, while human-dino hybrids are an awful idea, the idea of more genetic manipulation in general is under-utilized outside of the Indominous Rex. And what about rival corporations? Part of the concern was that InGen didn’t earn their knowledge, but how much worse would it be for the corporate knock-off brand of dinosaur? Why do they need to go to InGen for weaponized dinos, why not go after a competitor which they obviously would do if InGen won’t suit their needs? Why even use animals for their weaponized creatures anyway, why not just create super soldiers? There are plenty of angles that can be covered, but the issue with Jurassic Park continues to be that audiences expect the same plot structure in each one.

This is how I’d rank the series from worst to best:
Jurassic Park – 9/10
Jurassic World – 6.5/10 (I waffle between this being the best and worst sequel in the franchise though)
Jurassic Park III – 6/10 (arguably the worst, but it’s at least more consistent and fun than The Lost World in my opinion)
The Lost World: Jurassic Park – 5.5/10

*I actually heard an interesting fan theory that the spinosaurus in Jurassic Park III was actually InGen’s first weaponized experiment, which would explain its considerably heightened aggression compared to the dinosaurs in the previous films. The film hints that InGen has been working on other dinosaurs in secret, but it never actually followed up on that plot hint. It would be an obvious retcon, but it’s a cool idea that I kind of hope that Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom will follow up on.
**One could argue that this command centre was somewhere close to the old park ruins and the aviary, but I’m not buying that. First of all, there are a lot of people here, and if that was the case then Zach and Gray could have just headed here instead of back to the park, since an active building would have been marked fairly obviously. Secondly, if it was there then couldn’t Owen and Claire have gotten some help? Or maybe Masrani could get some ground support? And why wouldn’t the Indominus Rex have gone here instead of hunting the heroes if there were other people close by? It’s an obvious plot hole, and one which we’re supposed to ignore for convenience’s sake. Unfortunately, at a certain point, convenience gets abused to the point where I can’t help but notice it as the pile just gets higher.

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Retrospective: Jurassic Park III (2001)

Welcome back to part three of the Jurassic Park retrospective! In this post, we’ll be diving into 2001’s Jurassic Park III. After the muted reaction to The Lost World and Spielberg’s decision to step away from the series, would a new director inject fresh life into the franchise? Read on to find out…

After The Lost World, Spielberg was ready to step away from directing the franchise and instead went on to produce. Joe Johnston instead was brought on to direct after having offered to direct the previous entry. Johnston would later go on to be well-known for The Wolfman and Captain America: The First Avenger, but at the time he was already famous for making quality family-friendly, special effects-heavy blockbusters such as Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Jumanji and The Rocketeer. Without a novel to form the basis of the plot, a new story had to be written from scratch for the first time in the series history. The first draft of the script revolved around teenagers getting stranded on Isla Sorna, but this was ultimately rejected when Johnston was officially brought on board. The second script revolved around Pteranodon escaping from Isla Sorna and killing people on the mainland and featured a number of characters which would make it into the final film, including Alan Grant and Billy Brennan. This script would have had two main plots – one with Grant and company crashing on Isla Sorna, and another investigating the attacks on the mainland. Production went underway for this version of the script, with sets, costumes and props built to support it. While it was not based on any previous works, some action sequences were inspired by scenes from the novel versions of Jurassic Park and The Lost World, such as the aviary and the spinosaur attack on the river.

However, in an Alien 3-style turn of events, the script was rejected by Johnston and Spielberg only 5 weeks before filming was scheduled to begin, with $18 million already poured into the production and a series of sets which now needed to be worked into a non-existent story somehow. The parallel plotlines were deemed too complicated and the film was ultimately truncated into a single rescue mission plotline, with a script getting rushed to meet the filming schedule. A final script was never actually completed during the production, which is never a good thing to hear (although some films, such as Iron Man, prove that this can still work out in the end).

As I alluded to before, the only returning character in a major capacity in Jurassic Park III is Sam Neill as Dr. Alan Grant. Laura Dern makes a delightful return in an important cameo role as Ellie Sattler, although some fans might be disappointed to see that Grant and Sattler did not work out as a couple. Considering that she very much wanted kids and he did not, it’s not surprising to see, but Neill and Dern have great chemistry still and there’s a sad undercurrent in their interactions which shows that they clearly still really like one another. Of the new cast, the most notable is definitely William H. Macy of Fargo, Boogie Nights and Shameless fame, who plays Paul Kirby. Téa Leoni also appears as his ex-wife, Amanda Kirby, and Trevor Morgan as their son, Eric Kirby. Rounding out the main cast is Alessandro Nivola as Billy Brennan, one of Grant’s dig assistants who is a bit of an adventure-seeker. The cast is actually rather small and not nearly as strong compared to past films in the series, but most of them put in solid performances (barring one, but I’ll get to that later).

The plot of Jurassic Park III revolves around the Kirby family, whose son Eric gets stranded on Isla Sorna. Desperate, they con Alan Grant and Billy Brennan into helping them find their son, but soon get stranded on the island and have to fight for survival as they are hunted by a relentless spinosaurus and a pack of velociraptors… wow, I’m actually kind of surprised that I got the whole plot summarized there in only two sentences, but that just goes to show that Jurassic Park III is a very thin film on the plot side of things. Considering that the script never was completed, this should perhaps be not so surprising, but Jurassic Park III is content to just be a fairly standard B-movie action-adventure story. Compare the set-up and character establishment we get in previous films in the franchise to Jurassic Park III. In Jurassic Park, we get nearly an hour before the running and screaming starts. In The Lost World, we get nearly 40 minutes. In Jurassic Park III, we get only 20 minutes to get to know people before the film rushes us into the running and screaming. On the plus side, at least the rescue mission set-up gives the audience and characters direction, provides emotional catharsis and a bit of time to breathe between action sequences and allows the characters to develop a bit, but no one is going to say that Jurassic Park III ever takes its time to get anywhere.

Perhaps owing to the rushed script, much of Jurassic Park III‘s plot feels incredibly contrived. While the idea of someone getting stranded on Isla Sorna is an interesting idea, the entire plot gets thrown into motion because Eric and Ben (Amanda’s boyfriend at the time) are parasailing and the crew of the boat they chartered gets devoured without explanation within minutes of arriving after passing through a fog. This is just the first of a number of “convenient” events which occur which don’t really make a lot of sense or which aren’t really explained. Like, within minutes of landing on Isla Sorna, the characters are attacked by the spinosaur, the “professional” mercenaries with the big guns are wiped out and their plane crashes, putting the rest of the plot in motion super conveniently. Then there’s just lots of little moments that are done for a cheap scare or “because plot”. Why is Ben’s skeleton still hanging in the tree he crashed in? Why does the raptor hide behind the glass tank motionless? Why is the spinosaurus even hunting the humans anyway (at least The Lost World went to great pains to justify why the t-rexes would be following the moveable feast)? And who the hell is constantly calling Paul’s satellite phone every second of the day!? Hell, we even get another Chekhov’s Lucky Pack for the second film in a row.

On the character side of things, it’s nice to see Alan Grant back. While Malcolm’s the funner, more dynamic presence in Jurassic Park, Grant was always my favourite character. In this film, he has gotten surlier, more world-weary and disillusioned after the events of the first film. Billy provides a nice counter-point to him, with some youthful enthusiasm and optimism, although his character isn’t as well developed as one might have wished. As for the Kirby family, Paul is definitely the likeable and learns to grow braver and more capable as the film progresses. Eric is also rather interesting, being probably the most capable character in the film, although once he gets rescued he just becomes more of a tag-along. That said, he’s the first child character in this series to not be a complete burden and is probably therefore the best child in the whole franchise. Finally, we have Amanda Kirby, and oh my God is she annoying. Eric isn’t the burden in this film, because that role goes to Amanda, who is constantly making insufferably stupid decisions. I’m not sure if she’s supposed to be so annoying, or if that’s Téa Leoni’s fault, but bloody hell you’re going to wish that she would become dino chow, even though within the first 10 minutes you know exactly who is going to live and who is going to die in the film. Of the obvious cannon fodder, I actually rather like Udesky, who knows that he’s in way over his head and just wants to get the hell off of this island. He tends to be good for a laugh at the expense of his cowardice, he lasts just long enough to leave an impression on you and gives us probably the best death in the film to boot.

Joe Johnston is a very competent director, but he doesn’t bring the same sort of energy to the proceedings as Spielberg. He may not have had his heart in The Lost World, but that film still had its standout sequences which Jurassic Park III can never really match. The first spinosaur attack and the aviary scene are both quite exciting, but the action sequences tend to not stand out quite as much as they did in the past. That’s not to say that they’re bad, but they just aren’t given the same sort of flair. Sometimes the direction/editing is wonky as well, most notably when Grant gets knocked out on the plane, which is handled with a first person perspective fade to black. The film moves at a brisk 90 minutes, which could be down to the fact that there was no script in place more than anything else. Also worth noting is that the special effects are still very good, the CGI is well-utilized and the animatronics are still central to bringing the dinosaurs to life.

Perhaps due to his past as a director of kid-friendly family blockbusters, Jurassic Park III is much lighter in tone than previous entries were. The emphasis seems to be on fun and humour and rarely on building tension and horror, which is further aided by the way the film telegraphs very obviously who is going to live and who will die. The only character whose fate is up in the air throughout is Billy and in the film’s standout sequence, it appears that he is killed by a flock of pteranodon (we can even see a lot of blood in the water as he is washed downstream). However, the film totally cops-out in the ending when it reveals that not only did he somehow survive this attack without any sort of explanation, but the US Marines also manage to find and secure him before Grant and his group. It’s a bullshit ending that makes absolutely no sense and just feels like someone threw it in at the last moment to give us an unearned feel-good ending.

Jurassic Park III is certainly the divisive film. Some people like it more than The Lost World, but there is also a sizeable chunk of the fanbase who despise it for a number of reasons. There are some people who dislike the admittedly lazy and throw-away plot, or the shift from a serious and tense tone to one that is much more light-hearted. The sense of wonder has also been largely jettisoned in Jurassic Park III, focusing instead entirely on the running and screaming with one very short scene of admiring the herbivores late in the runtime. The portrayal of the dinosaurs also has definitely caused some fanboy rage. The spinosaurus is less of an animal and more of a terminator as it chases the survivors around the island. Fans also hate that the spinosaurus beats a t-rex in a fight early in the film, which is thrown in as an obvious way to establish that “this new dinosaur is better than the one you already like”. The rage that scene inspires is bad enough that the Jurassic Park wiki page for it has to include warnings not to get butthurt about it. Some fans also hate how the velociraptors are portrayed, although they are definitely more menacing than they were in The Lost World in my opinion.

For my own part, I’m a bit mixed. I definitely acknowledge Jurassic Park III‘s obvious problems, but it’s obvious from the get-go that the film is aiming to be little more than a b-movie filled with unpretentious dinosaur fun and I feel like it succeeds in its aim. It’s certainly less disappointing than The Lost World, which aimed higher but missed the mark, even if Jurassic Park III‘s aims are far lower as well. It’s definitely a throw-away film, but I always enjoy myself when I watch it so I feel like it deserves some points for that at least.

6/10

Be sure to come back soon as we round out this retrospective with Jurassic World!

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Retrospective: The Lost World – Jurassic Park (1997)

Welcome back to the Jurassic Park retrospective! In this entry we’re going to be looking at the second film in the franchise, 1997’s The Lost World: Jurassic Park. After the first film set box office records and captivated the imaginations of audiences everywhere, a sequel was practically guaranteed. Could Spielberg and company recapture the same magic which made the original film so special? Read on to find out…

As I said in the previous entry, The Lost World: Jurassic Park apes the original film’s poster hard, only really differentiating itself with rougher, decayed design and a cool tagline.

After the success of the first novel and film, Michael Crichton was pressured to write a sequel. Most fans (myself included at the time) had expected the sequel to involve Nedry’s embryo canister in some way, and even Spielberg explored this option, although it was ultimately dropped and never explored outside of the Jurassic Park Telltale game. After discussions with Spielberg and others, Crichton eventually relented when he got an idea for a sequel, which would be published in 1995 under the name The Lost World. However, by the time the novel was nearing publication, Spielberg was uncertain if he was going to return to direct, with Joe Johnston (who would eventually direct Jurassic Park III) offering to take his place. Shortly after The Lost World was published, Spielberg announced he would direct the film, although with some reluctance.

The Lost World novel was… not great, to say the least. It’s pretty clear that Crichton’s heart wasn’t truly in it, and the plot definitely suffers for it. The story of the novel revolves around Ian Malcolm hunting down a scientist who is stuck on Isla Sorna while Lewis Dodgson (the guy who Denis Nedry betrays John Hammond for in the original book and film) attempts to capture dinosaurs at the same time. Lots of mindless dinosaur-based carnage ensues. The film wisely discards most of this plot set-up, retaining only the most skeletal bits of it, most notably the idea of a “site B” where the dinosaurs were bred in secret in their own ecosystem. Perhaps notably, Crichton was not involved in the writing of the sequel. Other than that, the film also features a sequence from the novel where t-rexes knock a vehicle off of a cliff, which ended up being the standout moment of the film. The Lost World also features a number of sequences inspired by the first novel, including the opening beach attack, a character being swarmed and killed by procompsognathus, and a t-rex attacking characters hiding behind a waterfall.

Other inspirations on the film included Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World (which obviously inspired Crichton as well) and the film Hatari!, which apparently influenced the scenes of hunters capturing dinosaurs. The ending was also changed three weeks before filming began, because Spielberg decided that he wanted to see dinosaurs attacking the mainland instead of the originally-planned ending which would have seen the characters attacked by pterodactyls as they attempted to flee the island.

The only actor returning in a major role is Jeff Goldblum’s Ian Malcolm. As the standout of the first film, this was a rather inspired idea, although this film sees him becoming more of a standard action hero than the sardonic, doom-saying mathematician he was in the first adventure. Richard Attenborough, Ariana Richards and Joseph Mazzello appear in cameo roles as their characters John Hammond, Lex and Tim, respectively, but they do not have a huge impact on the plot. New additions to the cast included most notably Julianne Moore as Sarah Harding, Ian’s lover. Vanessa Chester is also brought in as one of Ian Malcolm’s daughters, a spunky African-American girl named Kelly (the fact that she’s a mixed race child is actually quite surprising and notably refreshing, considering how rare this still is to this day). Rounding out the heroic cast is a young Vince Vaughn also appears as a resourceful and opinionated nature photographer, Nick van Owen, who is joined by Richard Schiff’s detail-oriented engineer, Eddie Carr. On the other side of the coin, the film’s primary antagonist is Hammond’s nephew, Peter Ludlow, played by a weaselly Arliss Howard. The film also features a couple standout performances from the hunters, particularly the late, great Pete Postlethwaite as Roland Tembo. Of the new cast of characters, Roland is by far the most entertaining and badass, easily stealing every scene he’s in with his intensity. Also worth mentioning is Peter freaking Stomare as a seemingly sadistic mercenary, Dieter Stark. All-in-all, a good cast nearly on par with the original, and once again no one puts in a poor performance.

The Lost World picks up 4 years after the first film ended. InGen has covered up the incident and Ian has been discredited after he tried to go public with what happened. However, after a dinosaur attack on a wealthy family, it is discovered that InGen is hiding a second island full of dinosaurs on Isla Sorna, where they would breed them before their delivery to the park. Hammond commissions Ian and a team to document and protect the creatures in their habitat, and Ian initially refuses until he finds out that his girlfriend, Sarah Harding, was approached as well and is already on the island. He and his team head to Isla Sorna to rescue her and realize that Ian’s daughter, Kelly, has stowed away on board as well. Before they can do anything about this realization, a group of hunters led by Hammond’s corporate nephew, Peter Ludlow, arrive on the island and begin rounding up the dinosaurs to take to the mainland. Nick van Owen and Sarah free a bunch of the dinosaurs and destroy the hunters’ camp, but discover an injured t-rex infant and try to rescue it. The baby’s parents follow them back to their trailer and attack it, leaving both teams stuck on the island and having to band together to survive…

Remember how I said that there was a current of child-like wonder running through the first film? The Lost World is much darker in comparison, with some really nasty scenes punctuated throughout: the opening scene where a child gets mauled by procompsognathus, Eddie getting ripped in half by a pair of t-rex, Carter getting stomped on by a t-rex and sticking to the bottom of its foot, Dieter and Burke’s deaths ending with a shower of blood, raptors wiping out probably two dozen hunters mercilessly and the civilians getting chomped in San Diego. It’s still PG-13, but it’s certainly darker and scarier than the first film was, without the awe that the first film inspired at times. In spite of this, the film is also clearly aiming for a younger demographic than the first film as well, as it is quite clear that the studio was building in merchandising opportunities whenever it could. This is felt most obviously in the InGen hunting team’s equipment, which includes elaborate vehicles like something out of a G.I. Joe cartoon. I can actually remember the toys that they were selling at the time, and the hunters’ vehicles were featured quite prominently there. This clearly mandated merchandising is just one example of how The Lost World is a film which doesn’t have nearly as much heart put into it as the first did, being largely made due to fan and studio pressure.

The film also suffers from a weak script. While no one puts in a bad performance, it doesn’t help if your actors aren’t given anything to work with, and The Lost World definitely fails nearly everyone in this regard with a plot which is far too thin. For example, we’re given only 30 minutes to establish all the characters and make us care about them before the “running and screaming” starts, which is only really 1 or 2 scenes for most of the principal cast. The script just doesn’t flesh anyone out enough or give them time they need to make us care. Kelly suffers most egregiously from this, being nothing more than a burden and only contributing in one cringe-worthy scene of Chekov’s gymnastics to save Ian from a velociraptor. Sarah Harding and Nick van Owen also suffer greatly from the scripting deficiencies, with us only really getting the thinnest sketches of their characters before the action begins. Making things worse, we don’t really get any development of any sort for the characters after their 1 or 2 scenes of establishment, which just makes it even harder to care about anyone.

Furthermore, the characters tend to act stupidly for little more than plot convenience. For example, Sarah (a paleological behaviour expert) decides to start petting a baby stegosaur while in the middle of their herd, which obviously leads to the rest of its family attacking her to defend their baby so we can get an early action sequence. She also later tells the group that the t-rexes will be tracking them with their superior sense of smell and then in the next scene is seen with a jacket covered in baby t-rex blood smearing it all over the trail behind them like a total oblivious idiot when Roland points this out to her (and of course, not even Roland thinks to actually ditch the jacket at that point). Nick is also a common victim of this problem, most egregiously when he decides to rescue the baby t-rex by bringing it back to the team’s trailer, thereby bringing the wrath of the parents down upon them. Even Ian isn’t immune to this – one minute he’s desperately trying to get Kelly off of the island, and then the next he’s helping Sarah and Nick sabotage the hunters before trying to get the radio to work again so Kelly will be safe (of course, Sarah and Nick’s sabotage operation destroys all the radios on the island, whoops!).

All that said, the film is buoyed significantly at the 45 minute mark by the t-rex attack on the trailer. This is easily the best part of the film, which ramps up the tension as we wait for the t-rexes to approach, to their attack which flips the trailer and leaves it leaning precariously over a cliff while Sarah lies helplessly on a breaking pane of glass, to Eddie’s heroic rescue attempt and subsequent tragic death. It’s a major shot in the arm right when the film needed it and arguably one of the best single sequences in the entire franchise. And honestly, character development issues aside, The Lost World is basically as good of a sequel to Jurassic Park as you could expect up until this point… however, the moment that trailer falls off the cliff and explodes, the film suddenly nosedives significantly, turning into a series of running, screaming and senseless death (Roland himself says it best when he calls the group of faceless mooks a “moveable feast”). As I said in my retrospective of the first Jurassic Park, that film could have been worse in its second half when the characters stop developing and just run away from the dinosaurs, but we already had gotten to know and like them by that point so it wasn’t an issue. The Lost World does not have that luxury. It has a hard enough time making us care about its principal cast, not to mention the dozens of nameless, faceless cannon fodder which are suddenly brought into the fold at this point. Sure, we get some interesting action sequences here, such as the t-rexes attacking the hunters’ camp and velociraptors ambushing them in the long grass, but these scenes lack the emotional punch of the first film and instead trade that for sheer visceral excitement. They succeed to some degree, but it is not a worthwhile trade-off by any means.

The film also suffers in the notoriously half-baked t-rex escape in San Diego. You can definitely tell that Spielberg rushed this ending into the film, because it very distinctly feels like it was filmed and conceived separately from the rest of the movie. The idea of a t-rex rampaging in a populated city is actually rather interesting and fits well into the series’ themes, but the film does not set it up well enough for it to feel like an earned payoff. Instead, it plays out like a very bog-standard monster movie and jettisons all but two of the characters we were supposed to be trying to become attached to throughout the rest of the film. In a lot of ways, it reminds me of Die Hard with a Vengeance and its clearly half-assed ending. It does serve as one of the big showcases for the CGI though, which has improved significantly in the intervening 4 years between films. In fact, I’d say that The Lost World deserves the reputation that Jurassic Park‘s special effects are so often bestowed with, because the CGI is utilized more often and holds up nearly flawlessly. That said, the animatronics and puppets are still being used frequently in this film, which is great to see as well and helps to ensure that the film’s effects still remain great to this day.

All-in-all though, The Lost World is disappointingly mediocre. It has promise, but it seems content to just squander all of it and turn into a mindless romp packed with as much dinosaur carnage as possible by the halfway point. The non-existent character development also cripples any sort of emotional investment in the film, making the carnage far less engaging than it was in the first film. In fact, The Lost World is the 3rd-lowest-scoring film in Spielberg’s filmography, after Hook and 1941, making it something of a black mark on his directoral career. Maybe with a bit more time in the oven and a bit more enthusiasm, Spielberg could have spun gold again, but as it is, The Lost World falls short.

5.5/10Tune in next time as we tackle the third film in the franchise, Jurassic Park III!

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Retrospective: Jurassic Park (1993)

Holy shit, surprise, it’s another Retrospective series! I honestly wasn’t expecting to do another one of these, since they tend to take quite a bit of time, work and effort to put out to a level I’m happy with. That said, I was thinking back on the Jurassic Park film franchise just the other day and it was making me think of how interesting this series’ journey has been, which started giving me that writer’s itch. And so, let’s launch into this with the first entry in the series, 1993’s Jurassic Park

Pretty much the definition of an iconic poster. Simple, but so evocative. In fact, it’s so iconic that every subsequent poster in the series has aped it wholesale.

Normally I beat around the bush and try to act coy about what my overall thoughts on a film are in one of these reviews. I’m not even going to bother with that pretense here – Jurassic Park is a bloody classic. You know it and I know it too. I mention that up-front because it’s relevant to note that the film is based on the Michael Crichton novel of the same name which, somehow, is even better than the movie in my opinion. The novel hits most of the same beats as the film, although basically every scene or character is different in some manner. Some particularly fun examples of differences from the original novel are that the lawyer, Donald Gennaro, was originally written as a muscle-bound badass who punches a velociraptor in the face when it bites him in the arm, John Hammond is originally a petulant and unrepentant corporate villain, and that the big climax with the raptors involves far more of the creatures on the loose which the heroes end up having to fight with freaking rocket launchers. In addition, the novel has much more detailed discussions about chaos theory, while also fitting in so many action sequences that the novel would still be plundered for inspiration in the next 2 sequels. The novel is also notably far more violent, with scenes including such gory imagery as babies being eaten in their cribs, men being disemboweled and eaten alive and dinosaurs getting blown in half. I actually wrote a paper in 12th grade about all the differences between the film and novel and the only element which survives basically intact is Denis Nedry’s character, who is just as much of a slobbish buffoon in both mediums.

Anyway, before the novel was even published, Crichton and Steven Spielberg were in talks about the premise, which Spielberg thought was fascinating. A bidding war between 4 studios broke out, but Spielberg and Universal won it and got underway producing the film. Notably, Spielberg wanted to make Schindler’s List, which would be funded after he directed Jurassic Park. Basically, in the year 1993, Spielberg ended up putting out 2 of the best movies in their respective genres because the man is just that much of a legend.

Also key to the film’s success were its ground-breaking special effects work led by Stan Winston (of Aliens, Predator and Terminator fame) and Phil Tippett (who did stop-motion effects on Star Wars and RoboCop). Originally the dinosaurs were going to be achieved through a mixture of animatronics and stop motion, but Spielberg found the stop-motion effects to be unsatisfactory. Dennis Muren of Industrial Light and Magic claimed that they could use computer generated imagery to achieve the desired effects, which he demonstrated with footage that would form the basis of the scene of the T-Rex chasing Gallimimus (which prompted this exchange immortalized in the film: “When Spielberg and Tippett saw an animatic of the T. rex chasing a herd of Gallimimus, Spielberg said, ‘You’re out of a job,’ to which Tippett replied, ‘Don’t you mean extinct?’“). The CGI tends to get all of the praise, but most of the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park are actually brought to life with puppetry and animatronics, which are all top-notch and help to make the effects work even more impressive and life-like. That said, the CGI is often heralded for being better than anything that gets put out today, which is definitely a stretch. It is usually quite good, shockingly so for 1993 special effects, but you can often tell when CGI is being used and when animatronics are. In fact, at times the CGI is just straight-up poor, most notably in the “big reveal” scene where Alan Grant sees the brachiosaurus for the first time, and we end up seeing this unconvincingly-textured behemoth marching across the land. That’s actually rather unfortunate because it dilutes the impact of the scene a bit, although it would have been mind-blowing in 1993. Thankfully, CGI is never over-utilized, only being relied on when it is needed.

Jurassic Park is also gifted with a very talented cast, none of which puts in a poor performance.* Jeff Goldblum’s character, Ian Malcolm, is the clear standout just by virtue of Jeff Goldblum playing his usual brand of eccentricity, but he’s only a bit more entertaining than Sam Neil and Richard Attenborough’s characters. Hell, even the bit parts are intensely watchable, from Bob Peck’s badass game warden Robert Muldoon, to Wayne Knight’s bufoonish villain Denis Nedry, to Samuel L. Jackson’s sarcastic Ray Arnold. As I wrote earlier, nearly every character differs from their book counterparts, but the changes to John Hammond are the most impactful on the plot. Taking him from being a curmudgeonly and greedy bastard to a well-meaning, enthusiastic entrepreneur lends the film an air of tragedy, most keenly felt in the scene when he bemuses on his past with Ellie Sadler (capped perfectly with a heart-breaking reading of his signature line, “spared no expense”).

The very first thing that strikes you about Jurassic Park is John Williams’ score, which sets the tone perfectly. It puts you on edge when it needs to and swells you to excitement at the perfect times. When I was writing my notes while watching the film, literally my very first one was “Immediately, oh God the music”. Tying into this feature, the script and Spielberg’s direction build so much suspense that any sort of comprehensive list would just be a plot summary. That said, the t-rex attack is probably the textbook, standout example of how to build suspense in a major action sequence.

Jurassic Park is a film of two halves. The first half is used to establish the setting and plot, begin building up suspense, and (primarily) to provide the audience with speculative wonder and adventure. This emphasis on wonder actually makes the second half more impactful, because we get to see how amazing this island is and the creatures which inhabit it. It’s very easy to get caught up in John Hammond’s own enthusiasm for the park and root for its success in spite of any concerns of its safety, particularly during the “Mr. DNA” scene (which also happens to be an ingenious way to explain the admittedly ponderous scientific elements of the book in a quick and palatable way). Even when the film shifts from adventure into an action and horror in the second half, the sense of inherent wonder at this island still lingers at times, such as when Grant, Lex and Tim take shelter in a tree and witness a herd of brachiosaur feeding.

The second half of the film is where things go pear-shaped for the characters and all of the suspense that has been building up boils over into basically non-stop action-horror for the next hour. The survival-based half of the film seems to have been the main thing which has been seized-upon with subsequent Jurassic Park films, rather than the sense of wonder which sets this film apart so much from its sequels (not to get too ahead of myself, but Ian Malcolm lampshades the plot structure himself in The Lost World when he says “Oh, yeah. ‘Oooh, ahhh,’ that’s how it always starts. Then later there’s running and um, screaming”). This is notable because one of the most common complaints about Jurassic Park is that after the first hour, the characters basically spend the rest of the movie running away from dinosaurs rather than being developed. Only Grant and Hammond learn some small lessons in this whole time, but otherwise you could swap nearly any character out for another without impacting the plot any as everyone’s just running and reacting to the dinosaurs hunting them. That said, I don’t feel like Jurassic Park truly suffers because of this – it’s a notable weakness, but luckily the characters were already established well in the preceding hour and given distinct and likeable personalities, so we still care about them when the film isn’t giving us more reason to.

Other than that, I can only point out a couple other weak points with the film, but they’re really nitpicky. One would be the kids, Lex and Tim, who are basically just burdens. They do have thematic significance (helping to develop Grant’s character), provide some additional wonder and Lex manages to get the security system working again briefly, but otherwise they can be a bit of an annoyance and would begin the “obligatory child character” trope which would plague the series going forward. I also am mixed on the t-rex’s vision, which Grant conveniently knows is based on movement. On the one hand, it provides some more tension, but it’s also super convenient and largely ignored in any subsequent film (Crichton’s sequel novel even tries to retcon it out in very clumsy fashion). There are also some mise-en-scene issues with the cliff suddenly appearing in the t-rex paddock, but this could just be down to poor explanation of spacing, plus the film does a good job of making you not notice this anyway. Other than that, it’s kind of silly that the wrecked car chases the characters down the tree, but again… nitpicks. This movie freaking rocks, is a defining film from my childhood and is definitely amongst my favourite films of all-time. It’s a classic, no question.

9/10

Be sure to tune in soon for the next entry in this series, The Lost World: Jurassic Park!

*In fact, literally the only performance in the film which I would classify as “poor” is Gerald Molen, who plays Dr. Harding (aka, the guy who is looking after the sick triceratops). This is probably because he’s actually more of a producer rather than an actor who… wait… he produced 2016: Obama’s America? What the hell!?! Ugh, well now I’m going to cringe twice as hard every time he says, in response to the triceratops’ pupils being dilated, “They are? Well I’ll be damned!”
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Review: Werewolf – The Beast Among Us

As I stated way back in 2013 when I did a retrospective of The Howling franchise, werewolves are my favourite monsters in basically any medium. Hell, they’re even by far my most picked (and most successful) deck in Smash Up. However, despite all that love, even I have to admit that most werewolf films are total garbage, with only a handful of true gems managing to stand out. That said, if you’re the sort of person like me who can gleefully appreciate a trash film, then there are plenty to pick from in the werewolf subgenre. Hell, I have (on more than one occasion) seen crappy looking werewolf DVDs on video shelves and decided that I needed to see just how bad it actually was for myself. One of the more memorable instances of this was when I saw a copy of Werewolf: The Beast Among Us on a Walmart video shelf and thought that it looked promising… well, promisingly dumb, at least. Fast-forward 5 years and I saw that the film was on Netflix. I didn’t have anything better to do with my Boxing Day evening, so I decided to check it out for a laugh…

Not trying to spoil what my feelings on this movie were, but the official cover art here is definitely hyping you up for a far cooler film than what we actually get.

Werewolf: The Beast Among Us actually has a bit of an interesting history. It was born out of the ashes of the 2010 remake of The Wolfman. That film was a critical and commercial failure and, while I actually really like it (especially the director’s cut), it did not do well with audiences either. At the time, Universal was in the very early stages of trying to get their classic monsters back onto the big screen (in fact, they originally offered Guillermo del Toro oversight for this initiative, which would have been incredible). However, with The Wolfman failing to resonate, Universal thought that their best option with the property was to remake it again. However, this project ended up morphing into a plan for a loose series of low-budget spin-off films of the 2010 remake, although The Beast Among Us was the only one which would actually see the light of day. This is because it would release in the same year as The Avengers, which would lead Universal to attempt to launch The Dark Universe with Dracula Untold and The Mummy (2017), both of which failed to garner any enthusiasm. Considering how difficult it was for me to even explain Universal’s thought process in the last 7 years, it’s little wonder that The Dark Universe has been such a colossal failure.

I’m getting ahead of myself a bit here though. Universal had much more modest aims with The Beast Among Us, aiming for the direct-to-DVD market… which, apparently, was still a thing in 2012. Huh, who knew? 2012 must have been that awkward period where the DVD/Blu-ray market was losing viability but the VOD-release market hadn’t risen to prominence yet either.

The Beast Among Us immediately opens on a bad note with the obligatory “badass monster hunter origin story” which you’ve seen a million times (and which I already covered on my last werewolf movie review, Red: Werewolf Hunter) – a family locks themselves up to protect themselves from the monster, but it breaks in, kills the family, the kid manages a lucky kill and then we get a time-skip. It’s basically the easiest way to establish a “badass” character and lets the audience infer basically everything they need to know about them, but good God has it turned into a lazy shorthanded trope.

From there, we skip ahead to some unspecified time in the mid-to-late 1800s where we get introduced to the kid from the opening sequence, Charles, who is now all grown up and is the grizzled leader of a werewolf hunting group. This group are all colourful and distinct characters… archetypical, but distinct at least (you’ve got your drunken badass, heavy gunner, the hot action girl, the shady guy, etc). As fun as seeing werewolf hunters in action could be, I was worried pretty much right off the bat that Charles would be a crappy protagonist because he tries so hard to be badass that it could have been cringy and campy instead. Luckily, the film seems to have anticipated this and wisely went for a “less is more” approach, making him more of the idealized side-character everyone looks up to. It also doesn’t help that the film really bungles fleshing out any of the characters, especially in the hunting group (again, they’re mainly just a single character trait each rather than characters). The only one with any real development is Stefan (the previously mentioned shady guy), but that is simply because the film wants to utilize him as an obligatory secondary antagonist.

Luckily, the film instead chooses to make its protagonist a doctor’s apprentice named Daniel, whose village is under attack by an unusually powerful werewolf. He isn’t an amazing character either, but he’s definitely the most interesting in the whole cast, makes a good audience surrogate and is someone who you can empathize with. Unfortunately, his love interest, Eva, does not share that same fate, being relegated to the most boring and generic of generic love interests imaginable. Other than that, there’s Daniel’s prostitute mother, a doctor whose name is literally Doc, a stressed out mayor and a con-man hunter named Jaeger (who is actually rather fun to watch).

Anyway, The Beast Among Us starts out really poorly, introducing us to the hunters and to Daniel and Eva, without really giving us a sense of who is who, and jumping between these two perspectives in a confusing manner. In fact, the first 10-15 minutes of the movie are quite difficult to follow, mainly serving to establish the nature of this world that we’re exploring – there is a blight of werewolves on the countryside, people are being slaughtered by them, the citizens will slay those who become infected without mercy, and there are groups of hunters tracking the wolves down to keep people safe. The film also establishes that there’s a new breed of werewolf that is breaking the usual rules of lycanthropy in this universe (namely, that it can transform without the full moon) that has been attacking Daniel’s village, which prompts the hunters to lend their services (in a scene which toes the line between a Jaws rip-off and “homage”). Wanting to see the deaths end, Daniel offers his services to the hunters, who accept with much reluctance.

The Beast Among Us very much looks and feels like a TV movie – a fairly professional and high-quality one, to be fair, but a TV movie none-the-less. That said, it is surprisingly gory. The opening segment of the film establishes how brutal the werewolf attacks are by having mutilated corpses strewn across the streets, forest and falling out of ravaged carriages. Hell, there’s also a scene where Doc and Daniel realize a man they are trying to treat has been infected by lycanthropy, so Doc pulls out a pistol and blows his head off. If you’re looking for buckets of blood, then this film will deliver in that regard.

One unfortunate aspect of the film is that its werewolf is largely realized through CGI. Again, it’s certainly better looking than Red: Werewolf Hunter, likely due to Universal’s involvement in this film’s production, but it still is a far cry from Dog Soldiers or An American Werewolf in London… or, hell, The Wolfman remake. The filmmakers do show some restraint though, as the CGI is mostly used in shots where the werewolf is moving and attacking. There is also a practical costume which is used at times when we’re actually supposed to empathize with the werewolf, which definitely shows some wisdom on the part of the filmmakers and suggests to me that they knew that the CGI was going to be inadequate. The costume actually looks pretty good too, it’s just a shame that they couldn’t find a way to use it more throughout the film.

Anyway, I don’t want to totally spoil the film because for all its problems The Beast Among Us is a reasonably entertaining film with a couple good twists, but it also fails to really leave an impression on you when it’s over. It’s literally forgettable… and I’m not exaggerating about that either. I set up the start of this review to imply that this was the first time I had seen this film, because I honestly thought that it was. However, when I went to go rate it on IMDb afterwards, I saw that I had already seen this movie 5 years ago. Like I said, this film had a couple good twists and isn’t even all that bad, but I had completely forgotten that I had ever seen it – The Beast Among Us is that generic and that mediocre that I never even had a feeling like I might have seen this before. I couldn’t even remember who the main character was going to be or who the werewolf was all along. That’s actually what prompted me to write this review, because it’s interesting how forgettable movies work – I’ll never forget any of The Howling films (even the fourth one, in which literally nothing happens until the last 10 minutes), Project X or Troll 2, because they at least manage to stick with you afterwards. However, a film that doesn’t fail hard enough, or which fails to do anything but stick to bland tropes is harder to recall and may just be the worst fate that can befall a movie.

Like I said, The Beast Among Us is a reasonably entertaining film, but it will not stick with you afterwards. It never really rises above mediocre, but it’s worth the watch if you’re into werewolf films and have a lazy weeknight with nothing better to do.

4.5/10

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Movie Review: All the Boys Love Mandy Lane (2006)

There few experiences more baffling in enjoying movies than coming across a movie which is incredibly flawed, but that you love regardless. It’s exactly how I feel about the absolutely brilliant, but fundamentally hamstrung Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, and it seems like a lot of people have been feeling this about Suicide Squad as well. Recently, I rewatched another film which I felt was brilliant but flawed, the 2006 slasher film All the Boys Love Mandy Lane… and dammit, I just cannot stop thinking about it. The film is way deeper than it might appear at first glance, or even more than pretty much any slasher film I can think of for that matter, and yet it feels like the film was totally passed over and in need of a revisiting.

Good God that is a gorgeous poster, largely thanks to the equally-gorgeous Amber Heard. Fantastic tagline too, this poster basically single-handedly sold me on the film years ago when I first saw it.

Oh, and be warned – I’m going to attempt to dig deep into this film’s themes, so expect spoilers galore. Got it? Good.

All the Boys Love Mandy Lane revolves around a girl, Mandy Lane, who comes off of summer vacation to find that everyone in the school now seems to agree that she has become smokin’ hot in the past couple months. She is content to stick with her nerdy friend, Emmett, but with her newfound attention, she starts drawing the eyes of the popular guys on campus, including football jock Dylan and his friends, Jake, Bird, Red, and also the admiration of these guys’ girl-friends, Marlin and Chloe. Dylan invites Mandy to a party in hopes of hooking up with her, but Mandy insists that Emmett has to come if she does, much to Dylan’s consternation. True to form, Dylan tries to seduce Mandy unsuccessfully, but then Emmett makes him look like a fool, causing Dylan to punch him in the face. Later, Emmett heads to Dylan’s roof to look down on the partiers, but Dylan comes up and tells him to get down. Emmett then convinces Dylan that he needs to do something to impress Mandy and make her fall for him – like jumping from the roof into his pool. Dylan decides to risk it and jumps, but strikes his head on the edge of the pool and is killed instantly.

9 months later, pretty much everyone in the school hates Emmett, and Mandy has seemingly moved on to the more popular cliques. She receives an invitation to go to a house party at Red’s ranch, which she agrees to attend along with Jake, Bird, Marlin and Chloe. All 3 of the guys brag about how they will be the “first” to hook up with Mandy, while Chloe and Marlin both vie for Jake’s attention. Throughout the party, Mandy is subjected to attempts to seduce her by the guys (particularly Jake and Bird), but she is very tepid about going along with the advances – she clearly isn’t interested, but the guys try regardless. Red’s ranch hand, Garth, shows up around the property at various points to keep things in order, and Mandy clearly finds him instantly intriguing (as does Chloe).

As the night goes on, Chloe and Marlin make a joke about Jake having the smallest penis at the party, which causes him to storm out in a huff towards the barn. Marlin chases after him and proceeds to give him an apologetic blowjob, but when it comes time to reciprocate, Jake just laughs and tells her to piss off. Marlin is furious, but is suddenly attacked and fatally wounded by a hooded assailant. Unaware of this, Jake returns to the house to try to force Mandy to sleep with him, but she rebuffs him aggressively. Frustrated, Jake gives up on Mandy and steal’s the group’s only vehicle and a gun as he drives off in a drunken stupor to find Marlin for another round. When he finds her, he gets drawn into a trap, where he is shot in the head by the hooded assailant.

The partiers hear the shot and assume that it’s Jake acting stupid and drunk, but Garth threatens to put an end to the party. Mandy manages to convince him to hold off until morning at least, until the car drives back to the house and the driver (who the partiers assume is Jake) launches a firecracker at them. Bird chases after the truck and Garth threatens to call Red’s parents, but they decide to just put an end to the party instead. When Bird catches the truck, he finds that the hooded assailant is actually Emmett. The pair fight, but Emmett ends up slashing Bird across the eyes to blind him before stabbing him to death.

The next morning, Emmett sneaks into the house to admire Mandy and leave a blood-stained message. Realizing that something is badly wrong, Garth tries to lead the group out of the ranch, but is shot in the shoulder by Emmett. Red and Chloe make a break for it out the back door of the ranch to get help, but Emmett intercepts them and shoots Red. Chloe runs back to the house to try to get Mandy to help her, but when she runs into her arms, Mandy stabs her to death. We discover that Mandy has been in on this with Emmett all along, and they had planned to kill the popular kids is a testament to their love for one another. However, when Emmett insists that Mandy kill herself and then shoot him in the heart, Mandy decides against this. Emmett becomes infuriated and tries to kill her, but Garth suddenly appears and shoots Emmett, wounding him. Emmett stabs Garth a few times before chasing after Mandy with a machete. The pair fight, but Mandy gets the upper hand and stabs Emmett to death. She then heads back to find Garth and save his life by rushing him to the hospital.

From the plot synopsis, it probably sounds like the film is pretty standard for the genre, but there are a few things which make it stand out. First of all, the film is absolutely gorgeous, with some fantastic cinematography from Darren Genet. That said, the night scenes, which make up the bulk of the film, aren’t nearly as memorable as his unnerving, incredibly harshly lit daytime segments, which run the gamut from an almost-tender shot of hand-holding in the sunset (if not for the rapey connotations of the scene itself) to the almost documentary-style way that the camera tracks Chloe as she runs away, screaming, as Emmett chases after her in his truck. Much of the film reminds me of the harsh, washed-out grittiness of Tobe Hooper’s slasher classic, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which almost-certainly was a major visual influence on the film.

The performances in the film are also fairly solid. No one really stood out to me as being poor, although the only one who stood out to me as particularly noteworthy was Whitney Able as Chloe. It might be because that character had the best material to work with, but she goes from “typical mean-girl cheerleader stereotype” to a truly pitiable and tragic person that I genuinely felt sorry for… unlike basically every other character in this not named “Mandy”. I also thought that Luke Grimes played a really contemptible asshole with Jake, putting in enough smugness that he’s kind of entertaining to watch rather than being unbearable (you should have been taking notes, all you irritating sacks of shit from Project X). I’d like to say that Amber Heard did great as Mandy, but I’m a little indifferent on her performance. To be totally fair though, she’s playing a character who spends the vast majority of the film in a (seemingly) passive role, so she isn’t able to really assert herself until the end (where she does a good job). If nothing else though, she definitely has the looks to sell the idea that these guys are all going crazy over her.

My main beef with All the Boys Love Mandy Lane though comes down to the script side of things. If you go into this expecting a slasher film, then you’re probably going to find that it’s fairly boring – very little seems to happen during its middle segment, and you literally get 60+ minutes into the film with more than half of the total body count occurring before any of the characters even realize that there might be a killer on the loose. For my first viewing, I was just sitting there watching the movie slowly go by with characters just getting killed off occasionally, seemingly without much consequence in the film itself, which was making me wonder what the whole point was.

However, the film is much more interesting on that second viewing, where you already know what you’re going in for and have your context recoloured. I didn’t miss the film’s clear commentary on aggressive hypersexuality the first time (it’s incredibly in-your-face about it), but when you go into the film realizing that it’s the entire point of the film (rather than being a generic slasher), it makes the film so much more coherent. My understanding of gender relations has also improved considerably since I first watched this film, which helped colour my perception quite a bit. When I first saw this movie, I was probably leaning more on the idea that this was a “Beta Uprising” slasher film and kind of empathized a little bit with Emmett. I had realized there were feminist themes to Mandy Lane in my initial viewing, but after my second viewing it seems pretty clear to me that the film is just saturated in them.

Of course, most reviewers picked up on the feminist themes in the film, but some didn’t think that the film’s approach was successful. Bitch Flicks’ review of Mandy Lane claims that the film stops short of being feminist because they felt that the film was declaring Chloe and Marlin were traditional slasher “whores” who were deserving of their deaths, and claimed that the film would have been better if they had only killed off the men as a message about the harmfulness of toxic masculinity*. However, I believe that this analysis was unfortunately shallow and off-center since they seem to think that Mandy is supposed to be the film’s innocent feminist icon. In particular, I’m not so sure that the film is condoning Marlin or Chloe’s death for being sexually active like they claim – after all, Chloe’s death in particular was incredibly sad and didn’t occur to me as being “comeuppance” like “whore deaths” so often do in slasher films.

From the moment that the film begins, Mandy is absolutely immersed in a culture of in-your-face hypersexuality and superficial relations. There’s a clear element of sexual entitlement amongst most of the male characters, as nearly all of them seem to believe that they are going to be sleeping with Mandy at some point. Even the least-aggressively entitled character, Red, seems to think that he is going to get with her at some point, despite not actually doing anything to see this hope through. In my opinion, the superficial relationships on display throughout the film are one of the first keys to understanding the narrative. If you pay attention you’ll find that, for all of their big talk about hooking up with Mandy, none of “the boys” actually bother trying to get to know her. Most of the time, their interactions with Mandy seem to come down to gazing at her lustfully, telling one of the other guys that “they’re gonna hit that” and then trying to woo her with transparently-empty attempts at charm. Chloe and Marlin aren’t much better – despite supposedly being best friends, the two girls constantly tear each other down, such as Chloe’s repeated insistence that Marlin is fat (she isn’t) or Marlin insulting Chloe for having pubic hair (which she insults as being “Sherwood Forest” down there). Both girls are completely complicit in the boys’ objectification of them. In particular, Chloe’s relationships also clearly revolve around the superficial – she spends the entire party trying to get with Jake, and when he ignores her she tries to seduce Garth in turn, unsuccessfully. In one of the film’s more tragic scenes, she also laments to Mandy in private that Mandy is so much prettier than her. Her melancholy tone conveys utter defeat, but the fact that this is the first thing she really says to attempt to connect with Mandy suggests that prettiness is the only thing that she really understands. Honestly, I think that this exchange might have been the moment which sealed her fate at the film’s end.

However, the film gives us a clear counter-point to the superficial relationships in the film in the form of Garth (pay attention, this is going to become a trend). Garth is the one character who actually makes an effort to get to know Mandy, and without the ulterior motive of trying to fool her into sleeping with him for that matter. In fact, during one of their bonding moments, he ends up feeling like he can’t be with Mandy because she is “about 10 years” too young for him. This conveys that he respects her and finds her very interesting, but doesn’t want to force a relationship with someone so much younger than him, while also standing in stark contrast to the other guys, who only really talk with Mandy if they think it’ll get them closer to sleeping with her. It’s also worth noting that Garth demonstrates his responsibility and seriousness throughout the film – on a number of occasions he decides not to party with the teens because he has work to do around the ranch, or he wants to keep them safe. Contrast this to Bird, who only volunteers to walk to the ranch because he thinks he will get to hook up with Mandy on the way there, or who gets pissed off when he needs to restart the generator because he thinks he’ll miss another opportunity. Mandy, for her part, clearly finds Garth very intriguing, but unlike Chloe, she wants to get to know him and not just use him as a one night stand.

The second major key to understanding the film is the idea of sexual competition. This is made very obvious near the beginning of the film when Emmett chases after Mandy wearing a shirt which has “natural selection” written across the front of it, which is intended to convey the old “survival of the fittest”/Social Darwinian philosophy shared by assholes everywhere. Going along with the superficial relationships, the film is absolutely awash in hypersexual competition amongst the characters. Pretty much every sexual reference which is clearly framed in a negative light is linked to some form of attempt to tear down or compete with others. Just as a short list of examples, we have Chloe insisting Marlin is fat, Marlin’s comments about Chloe’s “Sherwood Forest”, Jake bragging about having hooked up to girls from 42 of the 50 States, Bird volunteering to walk back to the ranch so he can get rather rape-y with Mandy, Jake refusing to reciprocate to Marlin after she gives him a blowjob, etc. One particular instance that deserves further elaboration though is when Jake’s rather extreme reaction when Chloe and Marlin agree that he has the smallest dick in the room. Jake is such a toxically-masculine character who has been constantly attempting to one-up everyone, that this rather public declaration of him having the smallest manhood is nothing short of a devastating blow to his ego (especially since he’s trying to get with Mandy at the time). This explains why he gets so worked up about something so trivial, because as far as he is concerned, he’s the top of the pile, the alpha male if you will. Chloe also comes to fit into a similar mold as the film progresses. She brushes off the “Sherwood Forest” comment at the time, but later in the film, she is seen breaking down and crying as she attempts to trim her pubic hair in order to up her perceived value. At one point, we also see that she wears a padded bra in order to make it appear that her breasts are bigger than they actually are – a superficial and somewhat short-sighted move in many respects, but one which allows her to compete more “effectively”.

It’s also pretty clear that all the obsession about Mandy is just an extension of this hypersexual competition. Everyone wants to get with the “pure virgin”, Mandy Lane because she is unconquered, and whoever gets to her first will have their status instantly boosted as a result. In contrast, Marlin and Chloe are both sexually active, so hooking up with them isn’t considered particularly desirable. This is most clearly demonstrated when Jake finally gives up on Mandy and decides to just go have sex with Marlin again, claiming that he’s going to go “back to the well”. There’s a sense that if any of the guys do get with Mandy, then that will be the end of it – they may obsess over her now, but that’s only because she is “pure”. If she started indulging the boys’ desires, then their interest in her will wane considerably until her “sexual currency” is worthless. The toxic masculinity of this mindset is extremely clear and should be distressingly familiar to anyone who anyone who pays much attention to the manosphere (particularly pick-up artists): the idea that real men should be having lots of sexual partners, but women who have had lots of sexual partners are dirty, worthless whores with shrivelled vaginas. The hypocrisy of this mindset is staggering, but in Mandy Lane, Marlin and Chloe are complicit in it – it’s not a coincidence that both girls are lusting after Jake, the biggest misogynist in the entire group. It’s also worth noting that this competition for Mandy’s attention ends up coming down to grand gestures (eg, Dylan jumping from the roof into the pool, as if that would make Mandy instantly drop her panties for him) or really transparent lies that they think will impress her (eg, Bird claiming that he “respects the woman” and then forcing Mandy to hold his hand and give him a not-so-innocent kiss on the cheek… as if his words speak louder than his actions). Who does end up impressing Mandy, you may wonder? Garth, who just… is. He doesn’t do any grand gestures or lie to try to impress her, he just is himself and does the right thing when it is needed. He out-battles the competition without even having to consciously compete.

The third key to understanding the film is in Emmett’s role… which, compared to the other two keys, the film doesn’t shed quite so many answers on, and so interpretation is going to be relied on a bit more. Based on the previous two keys though, it would seem to me that Emmett is representative of a different, more primal sort of “competition” than the other boys are involved in. I believe that this is the entire point of the film’s opening 10 minutes, which focuses almost entirely on interaction between Dylan and Emmett. In this opening, Dylan attempts to woo Mandy through sweet words, charms and his physique. Emmett very clearly realizes that he can’t compete with Dylan in this arena, as demonstrated by the scene of him standing in front of the mirror without a shirt… which he then puts back on in defeat before sitting alone at the pool during the party. However, when he heads up to the roof, Emmett figures out that he can compete using his brain and convinces Dylan to effectively commit suicide. In Emmett’s (clearly sociopathic) mind, he may think “sure, Dylan might have been a more charming fellow and have a nicer body, but what good does that do him if he’s dead and I’m not?” Emmett may hate the superficial nature of the popular kids in the film, but many ways, he’s not much different than they are.

Emmett’s ruthlessness can ultimately be boiled down to just more gestures and competition – on a far more vicious scale, but gestures and competition none-the-less. He believes that Mandy is impressed by his viciousness (and, to some degree, she kind of is), so he attempts to escalate it show just how devoted he really is. His obsession pushes him too far though, as the gestures and the ideas become the real thing he’s in love with. For example, I believe that Emmett is basically holding Mandy up like a goddess of purity. When he kills Marlin, just after she gives Jake a blowjob, he is particularly vicious. He forces her to fellate the barrel of a rifle before breaking her neck, a level of sadistic “comeuppance” which he doesn’t reserve for any of the other characters. While Bitch Flicks might argue that this is just a misogynist moment of “slasher-flick whore punishment”, I’m not entirely convinced that that is the intention – rather, I think it is intended to signify Emmett’s own sense of twisted misogyny which has developed from his obsession over a single, idealized woman. It is certainly within reason to believe that he views Marlin as a worthless slut who gratifies other men, unlike his perfect angel, Mandy, hence why he forces Marlin to fellate the gun barrel (an image which effectively symbolizes “sex = death”).

The crux of Emmett’s big display at the film’s end is that he and Mandy have a suicide pact, which he believes will show his ultimate devotion to her to the entire world. In fact, he believes that this display will be so effective that it will inspire “copycat killings”, like they’re the Romeo & Juliet of mass murderers. However, what would this gesture actually do for Mandy? The only person who “benefits” from this suicide pact is Emmett, because it will show the entire world just how much he loved Mandy Lane, while preserving her role in the plot so that everyone will still believe her to be the pure, virginal woman (in fact, if she’s dead, then she’s eternally untarnished). In a sense, the mass murder and then suicide pact would (in Emmett’s mind) set him up as the ultimate conqueror – the man who overcame all the other men he was competing with in a permanent sense and then won Mandy’s heart forever. Does he really “love” Mandy though, or is he in love with this idealized notion of her? The fact that he goes berserk when Mandy rejects the suicide pact suggests to me that he’s in love with his idealized angel and his own grand gesture, rather than Mandy as an actual person with her own beliefs and wishes. Ultimately, Emmett reveals that he’s no better than Jake or Bird – forcing his will on Mandy and believing that he is entitled to her, but unable to comprehend that maybe she isn’t interested (the fact that she rejects his suicide offer by saying “you should never do anything for me” just hammers this home harder).

As screwed up as that mindset is, I’ve been to the sorts of places that Emmett’s mind has gone in this film, and so I find his logic disturbingly understandable (y’know, minus the murder). In high school, I was obsessed with this one “pure” Christian girl who I missed my very brief chance of dating before she moved on. However, I couldn’t get over her and ended up shielding her from other guys in the school who I thought we assholes, much in the same manner. In fact, at one point I was sorely tempted to push one asshole down the stairs who wouldn’t stop creeping on her, and at the time I decided against it… because she’d probably sympathize with him and not me. Now I probably would have been too level-headed to actually go ahead with it, but that was the sort of obsessively-screwed up I was in high school. I was also so obsessed with her purity aspect that I was very consciously shutting out any sort of sexual thoughts or feelings in regards to her, and would get pretty furious if other people spoke about her in a sexual way. In fact, it was unhealthy enough that I wondered what the hell I would do if we ever did actually end up dating and get together, I’d probably not be able to cognitively handle it. So… yeah. You can probably understand why I saw a lot of Emmett in myself when I first watched this film.

The final key to understanding the film is Mandy herself, or rather, understanding her motivations. We’re never really given an entirely clear understanding of why she turns on her supposed “friends”, to what extent she was involved in their murders, or exactly why she turns on Emmett at the end (although, as I stated above, it’s likely that she had come to realize that he was no better than the other boys). As I wrote earlier, I think Bitch Flicks makes a mistake in holding up Mandy as a straight feminist symbol in the film. While there are certainly feminist ideals attached to her, her sociopathy makes it a little difficult to view her as a simple, Nathaniel Hawthorne-style walking symbol. It’s pretty clear that she’s not just railing against the patriarchy throughout the film, but that’s hardly enough to make the film “not feminist”. Rather, to me she seems to be more of an independent character through which feminist themes are explored.

In an initial viewing of the film, it feels like Mandy is a passive figure for most of the action. She spends most of the film being gazed at while other characters attempt to get with her, or is off somewhere else while those characters get brutally killed. However, on a second viewing, it becomes much more clear that she is in control nearly the entire time. Scenes where she appeared passive as she watches the other characters bragging about sexual conquests or belittling one another gain a sinister subtext as we realize that Mandy is not just witnessing – she’s cataloguing their sins. She’s an interesting sort of slasher anti-hero – instead of hunting down and killing the characters, she influences other people to eliminate the characters for her. This also is where I disagree with Bitch Flicks’ assessment that we’re supposed to hold her up as a pure feminist example, because as the film goes on, it’s pretty clear that we’re not supposed to be condoning the deaths of the characters. Chloe and Red in particular begin to grow close during the increasing stress of the night and are set up in a manner which makes it seem like both of them are blossoming into a real relationship which could help them both (particularly Chloe with her tortured self-loathing and feelings of inadequacy). However, when they are both dispatched, it is a truly tragic and heart-wrenching moment which we pretty clearly are meant to not feel good about. I’d rather see these characters become good people than lose their lives as punishment for their mistakes, but Emmett and Mandy see things otherwise.

Where does Mandy’s murderous motivation come from though? This is a puzzle that I had to mull over for quite a while because the movie doesn’t give us a straight answer. However, I think I might have come up with a convincing answer: the one big common feature which unites Mandy and Garth is the fact that both of them have lost someone incredibly close to them (in Mandy’s case, her parents; in Garth’s, his wife). If you’ve ever lost someone close, or listen to the Dead Things podcast, you’ll know that it’s a life-altering event which changes your entire outlook on the world. Now picture this – Mandy is surrounded by this superficial, belittling hypersexuality, which she has come to realize is meaningless next to the grand scope of mortality. Then, after the summer break, she comes back to school and suddenly finds herself immersed in the fickleness of this superficial attention, which causes her to resent it even more. She’s almost like the Jigsaw killer, lashing out at people for not appreciating their lives, and the lives of other people who they just use and abuse. This idea is also demonstrated when Mandy kills Emmett, declaring that she wants to finish high school instead of dying for him, suggesting to me that Emmett isn’t even really all that cognisant of the finality of his own actions.

There is also a seemingly inconsequential scene in this film which I think really hammers home this link between Mandy, Garth and death. During one conversation, Garth reveals that he had to kill off the entire herd of cattle at Red’s farm because they came down with an illness, to which the partiers are incredulously surprised that he had the stomach to eliminate the entire herd by himself. As Garth explains, it was his responsibility and it had to be done. The fact that Mandy and Emmett have their final confrontation in the mass grave that these cows were buried pretty-explicitly draws a link between the characters and this idea of eliminating the diseased for the greater good. For Emmett, eliminating the other characters improves his standing and acts as a gesture of his devotion to her. For Mandy, it would seem that she shares Garth’s view – she views the superficial, the toxically masculine, the competitors, as the diseased which must be eliminated for the good of the “herd”, and values honesty and the responsibility to step up and do what is necessary – hence why she turns on Emmett. This also helps to explain why she likes Garth so much, because she sees a connection in this philosophies… although Garth may not see them as quite so similar if he understood Mandy’s true nature.

And that’s All the Boys Love Mandy Lane. I do hope that I helped shed some light on why I love this film so much, in spite of its rather slow plotting in the middle. I understand the reasoning behind it, but I can’t help but be kind of deflated by the way that the film kind of drags and feels inconsequential at times. If you look into the film beyond the surface level though, All the Boys Love Mandy Lane is a real treat full of interesting themes and ideas – I mean, after all, isn’t looking beyond the skin what Mandy would want you to do anyway? Something to consider.

7/10

*For one thing, this could easily be construed as misandrist, which is something that the feminist community doesn’t need to be getting legitimately thrown our way. Furthermore, I believe that the existing message in the film is more nuanced than that heavy-handed sort of conclusion would have been anyway.

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