A glimmer of hope in the age of clones and do-overs…

Reading the film-related news every morning has been a struggle for me lately. Not that I don’t enjoy staying on top of things and even the sheer volume of articles to flick through is not the problem – the content of said news, on the other hand, usually is the problem. At this point in time I think my stance on the state of mainstream cinema is pretty clear and I just might tip my hat to Steven Spielberg and George Lucas’ prognosis that the industry is now speeding towards a brick wall. I might disagree with their premise of ‘if people like Spielberg and Lucas find it hard get money to make films, then the industry is in a pretty bad shape’, because what I think will bring about the inevitable is the obsessive sequelitis that has been going on in Hollywood for years now, and while the point they’re making still illustrates the problem, it lacks dimension. Additionally, the blind faith in throwing more money at established box office blockbusters and turning everything into trilogies is only going to speed up the process of decay. The recent news of green-lighting “Taken 3” and rebooting “The Terminator” franchise already into a stand-alone trilogy can only testify to the trend I find most repulsive. With these two titles being added to the 2015 release slate, that already includes a massive amount of high-profile sequels, like “Star Wars Episode VII”, “The Avengers 2”, “Independence Day 2”, or “Jurassic Park 4”, I think this might be the summer of apocalypse Spielberg was referring to, when we would all call the film-makers on their bulls**t and this house of cards would crumble to the epic tune of Hans Zimmer’s score.


While I’d like to rant a bit more about that (and I actually might, but we shall see), the reason I’m here now typity-type-type-typing away is because for once somebody out there in the sunny California might have been listening to us, the movie-goers. This morning the news broke out that Pixar – the pioneering studio in the field of CG animation – has decided to scale back on the sequel production and focus more on creative new IP [standing ovation on my part]. Now, that’s just music for my ears, because it would seem that somebody in Pixar noticed that their audience needs more than just another “Toy Story”.

Believe it or not, but this is a business of making money and a film’s goal is to make a profit (that excludes the indie projects, so stay where you are). However, while the mainstream opinion in Hollywood might be along the lines of ‘diminish the risk, increase the reward’, it not always pans out, as illustrated by Pixar’s case. I don’t think these guys need much of an introduction past the fact they had single-handedly kicked off a major revolution in the world of animation back in the day. They have not been the most prolific of studios out there with only 14 titles released to date (starting in 2006, averaging one theatrical release per year), because they claimed to have been focused on the quality instead of the volume of releases… and good for them.

Nevertheless, right around 2009 they have fallen victim to peer pressure and have jumped on the sequel bandwagon hoping they would get filthy rich in no time. And so, out of all 14 releases in Pixar’s portfolio, 4 are direct sequels, or prequels (“Monsters University”, currently in theatres), and while their first sequel on record – “Toy Story 2” – was released in 1999 as both an attempt to make up for a disappointing “A Bug’s Life”, and a genuine answer to the demands of the fan-base, the remaining 3 sequels have been released nearly back-to-back starting in 2010.

Pixar 1

What I think stands behind Pixar’s decision to concentrate their efforts on new ideas, can be explained using pure calculations. If you have a look at how Pixar’s films did in the box office against their respective budgets, you should immediately notice the trend. Note that the worldwide box office is missing from the graph, as it only adds to the noise; however, it has to be noted that, in total, all Pixar films have made a profit. Upon examining Pixar’s financial results, I could make a couple useful observations that feed into their plan for future releases. First of all, it seems that the more money Pixar has dished out on a given project, the worse the revenue was (with a notable exception of “Toy Story 3” that breaks the trend). Additionally, in their case, attempting to recreate the financial result of a given release (again with the exception of “Toy Story” franchise that has made continually bigger profit, but on increasing budgets) with a sequel has not been all that fruitful; “Cars 2” required the non-US revenue in order to break even. Even a new IP – “Brave” – that was released the following year seems to have suffered from the bad rep Pixar has garnered in the wake of “Cars 2”. Therefore, with constantly growing budgets and dwindling revenues, Pixar has noticed they needed to go back to their roots and rake in the money with fresh ideas in order to stop the decline.

Much has been said about the apparent sad state of affairs in Pixar and their financial results I have shown here only corroborate other people’s observations. Quite recently Christopher Orr over at The Atlantic has published a piece that illustrates how bad things are going with Pixar films by plotting their respective Rotten Tomatoes scores. While the declining trend can be noticed if you disregard the concept of an outlying value, the whole idea lacks substance, in my opinion. I believe that an average score awarded by film are not always the most reliable measure of a film’s quality, because it’s the tickets that ensure its success in the long run (at least in the mainstream cinema). Such approach certainly is informative, but I wouldn’t draw any conclusions from it.

Pixar 2

What will better illustrate the problem than simple numbers again? If you divide film’s box office revenue by its budget, you should theoretically obtain a numerical value that shows this film’s financial potential, with best results being produced by the films with the smallest budgets. Applied to all Pixar films, the trend clearly shows that only “Toy Story” (made 6 times the budget domestically and 12 times worldwide) and maybe “Finding Nemo” (4 times the budget domestically and 10 times worldwide) have been at all successful, but the general trend is headed towards disaster.

I find it most welcoming that the guys over at Pixar have noticed they need to listen to us – people who buy the tickets – if they want to be successful. Positive reviews are crucial as well, but for the most part (unless your name is M. Night Shyamalan) good reviews are usually reflected in the box office. So, how long before the rest of you, people, wake up and smell the coffee? I, for one, don’t want to live in the world where every single release has a number on it and I count on Pixar to lead the crowd towards improvement.

Rant over.

Saturday Fright Night Fever #1 – “The Last Exorcism” and “The Last Exorcism Part 2”

After a quick look through the reviews I’ve written since I started this blog, it occurred to me that one of my favourite genres seems to be wildly under-represented within the general population. It appears that out of 45 articles only 4 refer to horror movies and I think I’d like to do something about it.

I have always been a huge fan of horror (both books and films) and as it stands, my output does not reflect that at all. Well, I couldn’t really do much about the fact that horror seems to – strangely enough – be missing from the mainstream cinema with the bulk of the titles being released either as direct-to-DVD, or as limited theatrical runs with VOD on the back of it. Since I have been mainly focusing on what goes on in the cinemas, then no wonder scary movies have been left out of the loop.


In order to alleviate this scathing inequality, I decided to start (yet another) more-or-less frequent column specifically devoted to films of the scary variety. However, in the interest of integrity I believe certain ground rules are required. No, I refuse to score films arbitrarily, as I find it stupid and redundant; I can’t say that based on some sort of numeric value I like a certain film more than another. There’s more to it than putting the titles on a scale, and even if it was possible, the scale wouldn’t be one-dimensional at all. Nevertheless, since herein I will be only focusing on horrors and nothing else, I decided to review them and talk about them in the context of the genre they represent – much like I would do with Sci-Fi or actioners. While for the science fiction the task would naturally be a bit more laborious (with the complexity of universes, mythos and so on) horrors do present themselves as slightly more accessible due to their one single trait – their job is to scare you. Well, scare, disturb, or disgust, but the bottom line is that if you leave the screening unaffected and indifferent, then the film didn’t do its job and it should go down in history as a poor horror. And this is where I step into the fray…

This little column looks to me as a perfect opportunity to do a few things: first, write about one of my favourite genres that has been with me since I can remember (yup, I started reading Stephen King when I turned 10, and right around that time some horrors watched illegally on late night TV had already scarred me for life); secondly, catch up on films that have somehow slipped through my fingers, but would otherwise never end up on my ‘Blind Spot list’; and third, get back in shape as the horror jock I once used to be.

Right, that would be enough introductory waffle… Therefore, I should really kick this thing off by talking about a film (or a whole franchise, to be exact) that has brought me here in the first place. A couple of weeks back I wound up watching “The Last Exorcism” so that I could go to the cinema and watch the sequel (that took months to travel across the Atlantic), and what better way to watch a horror than in the middle of the night, by yourself, with headphones on and so forth…

I have to be honest here: I have never been a huge fan of the ‘found footage’ plot device (regardless of the genre), as for the most part, the idea of watching a shaky image for 90 minutes tends to be a nauseating experience for me; I barely survived “Cloverfield” keeping the contents of my stomach to myself. The same happened to me years ago whilst watching “The Blair Witch Project” – a film from which, I believe, all other found footage flicks originate, and while the experience was scary in general, it was kind of spoiled for me by my infuriating sea sickness that prevented me from engaging into what was transpiring on the screen.

And this is where “The Last Exorcism” got me really well… (the shaky image didn’t disturb me all that much, but the film did) For those who still haven’t seen it – it’s a story disguised as a fake documentary about an exorcist (Patrick Fabian) who has come to understand there are no such things as demons, but only people with mental problems. Thus, he is bent on exposing the phenomenon of demonic possession for the hoax it is. He comes in contact with a family that seems to be bothered by some sort of a malevolent spirit, so he takes the camera crew with him and drives all the way down to the middle of nowhere to perform his last exorcism.


It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what goes next, but I can tell you that much – that film was absolutely and definitely scary. So scary, in fact, that it made me want to rant about it… While the whole concept might be considered stale with all the “Paranormal Activities” and such (which I have yet to see, by the way), however this time round “The Last Exorcism” has struck a near perfect balance of jump scares, unrelenting threat, practical special effects and the inherent traits of the ‘found footage’ device. You see, the whole thing being shot with a single camera and in continuous almost non-edited takes lends a helping hand to scare the living s**t out of you. Plus, the actress portraying Nell Sweetzer (Ashley Bell) – the possessed teenager – managed to pull off quite a performance without any special effects and gave a refreshing makeover to the whole concept of how a person enthralled by demons would behave.

I don’t know what it is about the satanic variety of horrors… Maybe they get into your head much easier than anything else, because as Westerners, we are culturally more prone to believe that and thus we subconsciously fear biblical-type demons more than anything else… I don’t know, but there’s something really creepy about “The Last Exorcism” that made it work for me really well. Plus, watching it alone at night could only crack up the gain on the horror this film can serve to a viewer. And I don’t even mean the jump-scares here, because for the most part they are somewhat predictable, but anyway the single-camera shots really help to keep you on the edge of your seat. On top of all that, there is a couple of really well-crafted takes on the act of demonic possession in “The Last Exorcism” that I haven’t seen anywhere else and they will surely remain lodged in the back of my brain for years to come.

Quite sadly, everything that the first film was, the sequel was not (why am I not surprised?). And to think I actually went and bought a ticket to see this… Anyway, the sequel picks up where the first “The Last Exorcism” left off and we get to follow Nell in her struggles to incorporate herself back to normality. She doesn’t quite know what had happened to her (and I shan’t spoil much), but the visions she is experiencing make her think that the demon might still be around somewhere nearby.

Yeah, as I said, everything that made the first film a fantastic treat was completely absent here. With the found footage gone completely, “The Last Exorcism Part 2” was just another run-of-the-mill substandard horror flick – and a sequel at that, with all its flaws. I don’t know why, but some people think that a sequel has to just be more of everything, and I find it completely untrue, especially for horrors. What had made “The Last Exorcism” so good was not the abundance of jump scares, but the overall tone of uncertainty and constant threat. Those never made an appearance in the sequel… If anything, the jump scares have gotten more elaborate, but other than that – there is nothing this film has to offer. Additionally, because the viewer gets to see Nell all the damn time, I didn’t feel anything uneasy about her character any more. If anything, I sympathized with her a little… which made the ending a bit awkward. But then again, the ending was horrible in its own right, so I can’t do much about it, can I?

If I had to boil down the sequel to its bare essentials, it was basically a string of boredom with occasional scares, some chicks with black eyes, and random contortionist pedestrians. If I had to do the same for the first one, that would include the sense of mystery (but that would be understandably gone from the sequel due to the viewer’s knowledge of what had happened before), threat and an underlying arc that put the whole possession in proper context. Plus, the actual scenes of exorcisms and/or the scenes where the demon took control of things were flippin’ scary and no-one can take that away from me now…

In the end, “The Last Exorcism” was a film that I thoroughly enjoyed due to the horror factor it carried. It was seriously scary and engaging, whereas the sequel was just sad. The scary part was that I paid money to see it…