Saturday, February 09, 2008

Opinion: A modest proposal or "Godzilla versus Jason."

So the horror blog-o-sphere waits with bated breath (but not baited breath – it's short for abated and it means you're holding your breath – the source of the phrase, "Don't hold your breath" – but I'm suddenly on a tangent and we haven't even gotten a whole sentence out – the shame) to see if Robert Englund is going to reprise the Freddy role in the new remake, re-launch, re-imagining, re-re-re of Nightmare on Elm Street. The general consensus seems to be that the whole of horror fandom pities whoever the hell picks up the Freddie mantle as Englund pretty much made it all his for so long.

The subtext of this conversation is that the venerable franchises of the '80s are between a rock and a hard place.

Basically, nobody wants just keep grinding out sequels. The sequel game has been one of diminishing returns: generally less money goes into each flick in the effort to ensure a profit, these increasingly crappy flicks rightly draw fewer viewers, the studios see profit and invest even less in a sequel, which draws fewer people, and so on and so on. It becomes a race to the bottom. The ultimate end of it would be that the studio makes a flick that costs less than the cost of a single ticket to try to make a profit off of the last poor schmuck that cares.

In an effort to break this cycle, franchise owners have decided that the way to save their valuable properties is to hit the reset button. The idea wasn't totally without merit. One of the unfortunate products of the long death-spiral these franchises had entered was the introduction of meta-nonsense, wackiness, and other non-scary elements meant to rejuvenate the flicks. Sadly, it did the opposite. If you could just start over, as if you hadn't turned your characters in parodies of themselves, you could strip that crap out and get back to basics. This was one of the stated aims of the recent Halloween re-launch. Again and again in interviews director Rob Zombie claimed that he wanted to make the franchise "scary again." Get some hip talent, market it as the second coming of a classic. Good times, good times.

It's a great idea. There's only one problem. It doesn't seem to work. Zombie's Halloween was one of the most trashed horror flicks of last year. Not to be outdone, studios are rushing to throw Friday the 13th and Nightmare down the same hole. There's no reason to believe these will be any better. The problem with Zombie's Halloween will be faced by these flicks too. Revisiting a film automatically puts overwhelming restrictions on what you can or cannot do with a flick. At best, you can add some details to the backstory, modernize the filmmaking techniques, and push the gore up to modern standards. That's pretty much it. And that's everything Zombie did and the result was poor. I'm predicting now that the Friday and Nightmare flicks will suck in the same way.

So we're stuck. We can't make sequels and we can just magically restart the series and recapture the magic. What do we do?

The solution comes from an unlikely horror franchise: Godzilla.

Compared to Godzilla, the horror franchises of the '80s are small beer. The Godzilla franchise has reached an astounding 28 flicks. Like the '80s horror franchises, it had been diluted with heavy-handed humor, tweaked with premise undermining elements (like Minizilla), and generally abused in the name of getting asses in theater seats. However, unlike the '80s franchises, the last series of Godzilla flicks was widely praised as being among the best of the series, second only to the original in terms of entertainment value. This is no small feat. Godzilla is not exactly a multifaceted character and one can be forgiven for assuming that, after nearly 50 years, there's not much more to say about him. And yet, the filmmakers behind Godzilla managed to revitalize a property that had sunk so low as to feature its leading lizard doing a little jig after defeating an adversary. The tricks the Godzilla directors used could be used, I think, to get the '80s franchises out of the trap they find themselves in.

In 1999, Toho studios brought back their big reptilian star after a four-year lull. There were two huge factors working against a successful comeback. First, the last batch of Japanese-made Godzilla flicks had been roundly criticized as lacking. Ticket sales were mediocre, their target audiences – Japanese youth – had decided they were unhip relics, and talented filmmakers avoided the projects to avoid getting tarred as a hack. Second, the lackluster American version had been a one-two punch to Japanese Godzilla fans: it was at once upsetting that Godzilla failed to penetrate the American movie biz and upsetting that the American version was such a universally reviled mess. Toho revitalized the Godzilla series by 1) getting rid of continuity, 2) making it a showcase for new and promising talent, and 3) creating artificial scarcity.

Let's talk about getting rid of continuity. The new flicks exist in a sort of "Godzilla universe," but the details of the universe are reinvented with each flick. For example, in the last series some of the films assumed that Godzilla had attacked Japan only once before, others assumed that Godzilla had attacked several times, and one of them assumed that monster attacks were so common that a special UN military force existed solely for the purpose of fighting giant monsters. Some of the films take place in the here-and-now while others take place in the near or distant future. Basically, each film is a stand-alone product. The ground rules for the particular flick are explained in the film through exposition.

The second element: new talent. I'm going to be honest. The use of new talent has been a bit of a mixed bag in the context of Godzilla. On one hand, because we've got hungry directors, actors, and key crew, you get these sort of balls-out spectaculars that are meant to blow the audience away. This is everybody's big chance and they mean to take it. The downside is a tendency towards allusiveness, pandering to the audience, and an over reliance on currently "hip" techniques. For example, the makers of The Matrix should be able to sue the makers of Godzilla: Final Wars for stealing scenes and techniques. Still, it should be said that, unlike many a previous Godzilla flick, Final Wars never lags. It is an insane rush of set pieces and action sequences. And this is typical of all five of the last set of films: they are all made as if the future of the filmmakers' careers depended on it. Nobody phones it in.

Finally, another important lesson we can learn from the Godzilla franchise has to do with "clustering" the releases. Toho has learned that it is really easy to just keep cranking out flicks. But then you end up in the death-spiral that '80s slasher franchises are stuck in. Better to release a string of flicks and then dry up for a few years. Toho regularly produces as string of flicks, then retires Godzilla for four or five years, then releases a batch of new flicks. This requires some self-discipline. For example, Toho intended for the last series to extend for three films. It lasted five. Still, they could have gone on and on, dropping costs and accepting small and small returns. Instead, they left while the party was good. Don't drown your viewer in inferior product and they'll come back when you're ready to release more product.

I propose that the owners of the horror franchises of the '80s learn from the Godzilla franchise. First, adopt a looser approach to creating sequels. Let's take Friday the 13th as an example. Instead of adding more an more flicks to the current story, just set some ground rules involving Jason, Crystal Lake, and so on. After you've done that, let each film take a different approach. Does nobody know that people who go to Crystal Lake are asking for it or is it something everybody knows? Is Jason just some guy or is he some magical and unkillable zombie? Set this up with each flick and don't require each and every film to toe the same line. This opens up the stories that can be told and would encourage creativity. I would even drop the numbering system. Just give the films unnumbered titles like the Godzilla franchise or even the James Bond franchise.

Second, use real talent. "But wait," you might well say. "Rob Zombie came fresh off The Devil's Rejects and he went on to make the subpar Halloween." Of course he did. Zombie's best film was his most creative. House of 1,000 Clich├ęs and Halloween are just too beholden to other flicks. Imagine if he'd been told, "Hey, Zombie, here's the keys to the Halloween franchise. Do whatever you want." There's no point in getting good directors and good screenwriters, and then putting them in the straightjacket of a remake. Find talent and let them do what they do best.

Finally, do the math on the value of your franchise. You can kill the goose that laid the golden egg by driving your franchise into the ground or you can keep it evergreen by avoiding overproduction. Pick one?

There's actually an interesting test of these theories already going on. Over at DC/Wildstorm comics, they've got the rights to the New Line horror franchises: Texas Chainsaw, Nightmare, and Friday. The comics follow the basic rules described above. They don't just retell the film stories and, where it helps the story, they break with the continuity established in the flicks. They've put real talent on the titles. Finally, they haven't made the title monthly. Instead, each title exists as a collection of loosely connected mini-series, each with its own narrative arc. The results are mixed. Nightmare has been so-so, but Friday and TCM has been to notch. Still, I'm willing to bet that 2 out of 3 is a better ratio than we'll see out of these remakes.

No strategy can ensure that every flick in a franchise will be a success. But I think going this route would make each flick an event. Each film in the franchise would worth checking out because you'd now you were going to get something new.

Anyway, that's this horror blogger's opinion.

7 comments:

SpaceJack said...

Personally I'm just hoping all these franchises aren't re-imagined as [franchise] shot by some random character(s) with a camcorder.

Ryne said...

I think your idea is a really good look at what we can do to improve the freshness of movies. I'm really getting sick of remakes/re-imaginings, and I'm sick of the lack of creativity in almost any film.

CRwM said...

Screamin' Spacey,

One hopes Nightmare would be immune to that insomuch as why would somebody dream that they were holding a hand-cam the whole time.

That said, keep your in-air turbulence bag close - hand-cams are the new 3-D.

CRwM said...

Ryne,

Thanks for the feedback and thanks for reading. Ironically, I think my proposal fits in with the general philosophies of the studios: find success and copy it. The problem is that they seem to always take the short view.

Still, there is a powerful counter-example out there: the Saw franchise. So far, they've gone about releasing a film every year and there's no horror franchise more obsessed with its increasingly byzantine continuity. And, yet, they continue to make more and more money. Personally, I think the series has started to slide downhill, but so far the fans seem to feel otherwise.

Dutchman said...

I look on comics in much the same I would look on movies if the suits followed your advice. It’s all mythology at this point and every creator should bring his own ideas to the work at hand. How many times have the superheroes and their villains been re-imagined? Okay, so somewhere in the past is the “real” origin story, but why should that prevent new writers from going under the hood to tinker with the engine a little? There’s a “real” history of King Arthur, too, but various writers and artists have toyed around with it. If all you can stand is the “real” story of Wyatt Earp, a movie like “My Darling Clementine” is going to drive you nuts. Yes, there’s a true story of Michael Meyers and John Carpenter told it to us. If others, with permission, want to produce variations on a theme, they might come up with something good. Brahms did when he wrote variations of a theme of Haydn’s.

SpaceJack said...

Re: Nightmare on Elm St. - I'm sure it could be done somehow. Think Cloverfield + Brainstorm + Freddy. It could be worked into the plot as a way to acquire proof of Freddy's existence through modern technology.

Uh oh, I fear I've said too much already.

cattleworks said...

You know, on a totally other subject, but maybe not:
I'm curious about this BE KIND, REWIND movie with Jack Black that's opening soon.
Maybe THAT'LL be the screwy answer to our remake prayers...