Monday, 22 July 2013

Hollywood Babble On & On #1047: A Tale Of Two Scary Movies

While the summer box office has been dominated by superheroes, supervillains, and grand epic fantasies, the biggest story, I think of this summer has been the surprise success of two "little" horror films.

Those films are the science-fiction home invasion thriller The Purge, and the haunted house horror story The Conjuring. Both debuted at #1 even though they were surrounded by bigger, more publicized movies, with The Conjuring did better at the opening, but I think that it will do better in the long run, both at the box office, and as a franchise with the inevitable sequels.



"Legs" is the showbiz term to describe if a movie will enjoy a long run. Over time it has evolved to include not just a run in theatres, but in home video and television. A movie with "Good Legs" can make a film worth of repeat viewings, and in rare instances, status as a cult or mainstream classic.

I suspect that The Conjuring has better legs than The Purge, and the reason is a phenomenon I call "forced relevance."

The Purge is hindered by forced relevance, and be warned, this discussion contains SPOILERS.

The premise of The Purge is that a radical "right wing" fundamentalist Christian government movement took over the USA and instituted the titular annual event. Basically for 12 hours all crime is legal, including murder. So unless you want to be slaughtered, you barricade yourself and battle all comers for your life. Though it's implied rather clumsily that most of the "purging" is done by the rich who go out that night to hunt the poor for sport.

The film then follows an upper middle-class family battling a clan of purge-happy home invaders.

Simple, and it had one hell of a great first week, but after that disappeared almost completely. Not only from the top five, but from the public consciousness.

Now some will say that it doesn't matter. That most hit horror films make the bulk of their money in the first week, and since the film only cost $3 million the $76 million total means it had a nice fat profit margin.

But I think it might have done better if it hadn't tried to create forced relevance with their political stance, which only served to reveal the filmmakers ignorance of the political movements they sought to satirize.

First up, right now crime is not really considered all that important an issue by Mr. & Mrs. American and all her ships at sea. All crime is down, and aside from a handful of dysfunctional cities and the panicked reporting of the media, even murder has dropped almost 40%.

I've done some research, and the political right is not all that obsessed with crime these days, and when asked about it, simply ask for effective law enforcement. From what I've been able to dig up, their concerns are over debt, entitlement spending, government intrusion, and Washington's buddy-buddy relationship with Wall Street.

Not exactly the sort of movement that would vote for an annual purge.

Then there's the religious angle. It's pretty blatantly stated that the ruling "New Founding Fathers" are fundamentalist Christians, and that there's some sort of religious basis for the titular purge.

Now I'm no religious scholar, but I do know that Christianity has a very rule when it comes to evildoing. It's called NOT DOING EVIL.

There's no purging of your urgings. You don't do morally wrong things, because it's morally wrong. Do the morally wrong thing, and you end up in Hell.

I don't really see the religious right endorsing something like the titular purge.

So why did they pile on the political/religious stuff, even though it served to insult and alienate a good chunk of the audience?

I sense the pitch and story conference went something like this: 
WRITER: The idea is that there is a period of 12 hours where all crime is legal, and a family has to fight home invaders to survive. 
PRODUCER: But why would the government allow that to happen? 
WRITER: A scary government would do that! Well what kind of government is scary? 
PRODUCER: The Tea Party and the Bible Bashers scare me. If they get elected it'll be really scary.
WRITER: They are scary, but I don't really why they're scary? 
PRODUCER: I don't know either, all I know is that they scare me and my friends in the industry. Make it all their fault, because you know everyone will agree with us, because everyone here in this room thinks the exact same thing.
Uh... no... not everyone thinks the exact same thing. The human population is loaded with diverse viewpoints. The secret of making a political statement is to present your ideas without insulting those who disagree with you, or accusing them of attitudes and beliefs they don't have. 

If a right winger made The Purge and blamed the slaughter on liberal politicians, it would have the exact same stubby, and quickly tiring legs. It's an attempt to appear relevant, but without any real connection to the actual attitudes of its time and place. Instead all you get is a portrait of the prejudices and shibboleths of the film's makers.

One of the secrets to the success of The Conjuring is that it looks like it was done without any prejudice. There's no attempt to take anyone down, just a story of ordinary human beings battling supernatural evil. They're not tearing anyone down for their beliefs, and if they are making any sort of statement, it's being done in a subtle and, in the long run, more effective way.

The effect shows in the response of critics and audiences, who give The Conjuring much better ratings and word of mouth than The Purge.

So I guess the first rule of giving a project legs, is that if you're going to insult a swathe of the audience for their political/religious beliefs, you better do it in such a way that nobody notices it immediately.


  1. This is why I love Pacific Rim and really hope it has 'legs'. It's just fun, no real axes are grind. It makes the very obvious point that when the world is on the line, political divisions (and others) aren't that important.

    Also, I'm nervous because that film has a LOT of the motifs and themes and styles that many have been clamoring Hollywood for but... if it doesn't do that well, it will seem like a validation of the self-fulfilling idiocy.

    D, how strong do you think the giant robotic legs of PR are? Of course we assume HW will learn the wrong lessons from the movie, but which wrong lessons do you think it will pick up? Was this all a case of bad timing?

  2. @ nate- I liked the monsters-and-robots in "Pacific Rim" but frankly the rest of it was cliches cobbled together from bits of other sci-fi and genre movies: Transformers, Top Gun, Blade Runner, even The Matrix in its gratuitous marial-arts scene. The two mad scientists were especially annoying. Ron Perlman the only character that resembled an interesting human being. Given the deep dream/nightmare allegorical imagery in "Pan's Labyrinth", I expected a lot more from GdT- a smarter blockbuster. Alas, no. I think it will do a lot of box office in Asia, which will make up for the poor opening in the U.S.

    @ furious D- you are right about the brainless bashing of conservatives that comes out of Hollywood- the best recent example of that is all the anti-Iraq war movies that came out in 2006-2008 and *all* bombed, every one, even though the U.S. public by then was strongly critical of the war. People don't like to be preached at in their entertainment. In fact, you could even call this a blind spot, a failure to serve a big portion of the market, that a smart minor production company could move in on. "The Passion of the Christ" leaps instantly to mind, though that was a special case. More broadly, there's room for films with socally or traditionally conservative heros, a la John Wayne (is Channing Tatum in "Magic Mike" *really* comparable to, say, Wayne in "The Searchers" or others like it?) Some of the themes people respond to in the superhero or comic book movies are traditionally conservative, in a childish sort of way, without being politically or obtrusively so.

  3. D: Here's the deal on right wing + Christian bashing.

    Most of the media is left of center and statist. They don't mind the government controlling almost everything about your life. The kind of house you have, the car your drive, who you can hire for your business, how much of your life is spent working to send the proceeds to the government, which words (which might offends someone) you can say in public or on the internet and controlling your healthcare and subsequently your eating and drinking habits.

    What scares them to death is that someone might start controlling their sex lives. That would be fascism and must be opposed at all costs. So Christians are routinely depicted as murdering intolerant monsters - just to keep the eminent theocracy from establishing a toe hold here.