The Haunted House That Blum Built – How an Indie Producer Saved Horror and Changed Hollywood

It’s hard to think of it now, but there was a time when it looked like the Horror film genre had lost any and all credibility in Hollywood.  For much of the late 90’s and through the 2000’s, the horror genre was plagued by a number of mediocre films that were neither scary nor entertaining.  More telling, the complete disdain that the industry had for horror films could be seen in the way that the studios were simply just making films for a target audience, namely young adults 18-25, and no one else.  This led to the dreaded notion of PG-13 rated horror movies, that were far more reliant on jump scares rather than actual violence and gore.  And this wasn’t always the case with Hollywood horror.  There had been decades of noteworthy horror flicks that had left a major impact on the industry.  Starting from the Universal monster movies of the 30’s, all the way through B-movie horror of the 50’s and 60’s like George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), to the slasher movies of the 70’s and 80’s like John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980).  The genre even became so admired in Hollywood that it won the coveted Best Picture Oscar with Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs (1991).  But, like most other genres, Horror saw a decline when studios tried to interfere too much in the direction of where the genre was headed.  Soon it became less important creating memorable monsters and spooky atmosphere and more about hitting those cheap scares, or trying to one up themselves in the over the top gore.  Mostly, the horror films of the 2000’s fell flat because they pretty much all look and felt the same.  Sure there were exceptions like The Blair Witch Project (1999), The Ring (2001), and Saw (2004), but even those were undermined by lackluster, play-it-safe sequels.  Towards the end of the decade, the consensus was that horror was just not as effective at being scary like it used to be.  But, that would change once someone came along and changed the industry standard.

In walks Jason Blum, and his newly formed production outlet, Blumhouse.  Blum, probably without intention, has become the most valuable name in the Horror genre today, and has brought back a bit of prestige to this long neglected genre.  Though there are a lot of factors that have led to Blumhouse’s success, none is more key than the business model that the company has set out to identify itself with.  The Blumhouse model simply involves producing films on a controlled small budget with complete creative freedom for the directors and releasing them wide through the studio system.  By doing this, Blumhouse is able to have an output that is artistically unique without carrying a whole lot of financial risks, making them easier to sell to the major studios as well as to theaters across the country.  Because of this, the cost to profit margin has been extremely beneficial to the production company, with each film grossing significantly more than what they cost to make.  And with the huge profit margin, they have been able to build a great deal of personal capital which has allowed them to grow their business and increase their output.  Today, Blumhouse is not only putting out quality horror films, but are venturing into genres of all kinds; comedy, romance, family, even Christian drama.  They even recently announced a joint production with Dreamworks Animation (tentatively titled Spooky Jack) which will be their first venture into cartoons.  They also have also delivered several documentaries and TV movies, mostly for HBO so far, which has shown that they are not just a one trick pony within the film industry.  Even with all the continued success, the stated business model still drives the output of the company.  They don’t spend more than they need to, and they are keenly interested in discovering new talent and giving them the tools they need to make a mark in Hollywood.  That’s the key to making a difference in Hollywood; showing a commitment to a working strategy.

It wasn’t an overnight change for Blumhouse and the industry as a whole, however.  Blumhouse was launched in the year 2000, but it didn’t see it’s first theatrical release for 6 years.  It wasn’t even the intention of the company to take a look at horror, but that changed when a little project named Paranormal Activity (2009) dropped into their lap.  The found footage style film was not a novelty at the time, since Blair Witch pioneered the technique nearly a decade earlier, but under the guidance of the Blumhouse model, this little haunted house flick would prove to have a significant impact on the industry.  The movie cost a paltry $15,000 to make, utilizing unknown at the time talent, a single location, and cheap digital cameras.  The movie’s stripped down, cheap look actually proved to be it’s biggest blessing because it made the movie stick out greatly among all the other “polished” horror movies.  The jump scares didn’t feel cheap because they appeared more natural through the limitations of the presentation, and the lack of CGI manipulation helped to give it that ever crucial element of authenticity.  In the end, Paranormal Activity actually became even more monumental than Blair Witch, because it cost less and made even more, which only emboldened it’s creators to trust their instincts going forward.  Hollywood soon took notice once they saw how much return Blumhouse got on it’s investment.  Naturally, the sequels followed, but the quality of the finished films didn’t matter as the business model continued to ensure positive dividends on their side.  They were certainly continuing to figure things out from a creative standpoint, but ensuring that they weren’t making any rising financial decisions early on really helped to set up the foundation that would carry them forward over the next decade.

Since Paranormal Activity, the continued focus of Blumhouse has been less on building their capital, which has been steadily flowing for them for years, but instead to procure and propel top tier talent to and from their company.  Their goal has been to convince the industry that they are an artist friendly outfit, and that directors, actors and producers will have more creative freedom under their tent than they would anywhere else.  This became especially beneficial for the horror genre as one of the first directors to make the jump over to Blumhouse was James Wan, the creator of the Saw franchise.  After leaving his series behind, Wan was ready to explore a different side of the genre with the more subdued and eerier project, Insidious (2010).  Insidious was a very antithetical style horror film compared to everything else at the time, because it was a quiet, low key film which used silence and atmosphere as more effective ways to build tension and chills for it’s audience.  It was also a movie that calls for a lot of patience on the viewers part, which is a risk, but one that pays off well if it works.  Thankfully it did, and James Wan was able to carve out a new trend in the horror genre that he otherwise wouldn’t have had if he shopped his idea anywhere other than to Blumhouse.  Since then, other directors have sought out Blumhouse as the place to get their unique ideas off the ground.  You wouldn’t have had horror flicks with a noir sensibility like Sinister (2012) nor another with political commentary like The Purge series had Blumhouse not embraced new concepts through their model.  The most interesting aspect of their artist friendly ideal is that they’ve attracted filmmakers who feel they have been compromised too much elsewhere.  You can say that Blumhouse has single-handedly resurrected the career of M. Night Shaymalan, with his recent hits like The Visit (2015) and Split (2017), and that’s only because it seems like he’s finally getting back to the movies that he wants to make again, with their support.  The financial model has helped Blumhouse to build significant capital, but in attracting the talent they have, they’ve ensured a treasured reputation amongst filmmakers that will greatly help them in years ahead.

Perhaps the thing that is especially noteworthy about Blumhouse’s intent on attracting new artists into their fold is that it’s also opened the door for voices within the horror genre that we’ve never been able to see before.  This was very evident with the production of comedian Jordan Peele’s directorial debut, Get Out (2017).  Not only did the movie manage to become a hit with horror fans, but critics and industry insiders took notice as well, mainly because of the film’s content.  Unlike most other horror films, this was a movie that tackled it’s subject with a clear intention to provoke discussion and take very clear shots; in this case, with the very touchy issue of race relations in America.  Peele used the horror genre as a clever mirror held up to society, and framed the tropes of the genre in a way to make the cutting commentary even more insightful.  More than anything else, this opened up a very crucial door for the genre as a whole because it introduced a distinctly African American voice into a genre that has largely ignored it.  It’s surprising that it has taken this long for a horror movie from a black perspective to have been made, or at the very least become mainstream.  African-American audiences are some of the most reliable consumers of the horror genre, so it seems like a no-brainer that there should be one made that speaks with their own voice, tackling issues important to their community.  Hollywood took notice of this breakthrough and honored the movie with several Oscar nominations, including a Best Picture nod.  Peele won the Oscar for his original screenplay, a first for a black writer, and for the first time since Silence of the Lambs, horror had been recognized by the industry as prestige entertainment.  The most positive aspect of Get Out’s success is that it has convinced places like Blumhouse to look into other disenfranchised communities to find new voices to add to their every diversifying body of work.  Blumhouse, maybe unintentionally, might have broken the glass ceiling that has kept the horror genre a predominantly white, male centric world and shown that it can indeed be a genre that can carry a million voices within it.

But, when your business model involves taking creative risks rather than financial risks, an open production company like Blumhouse still needs to be moved in the right direction before it can fully make a significant change happen.  Jason Blum recently put himself into hot water recently with a not very well thought out statement that he would like to “make a female centric horror movie,” but there just aren’t enough women directors in horror right now to make that happen.  This rightfully sparked outrage from female critics and horror movie aficionados alike, who felt that Blum showed a very narrow-minded outlook on the relationship between women and the genre at large.  He’s not opposed to the idea of more female-centric horror movies, but his words showed how little effort he’s put into changing that situation.  First of all, he clearly hasn’t been looking hard enough, as there are plenty of aspiring and budding female filmmakers who are huge fans of the horror genre.  Secondly, you don’t have to look just for women who work exclusively in the horror genre; there are filmmakers out there who would gladly make the jump into horror if it allowed them to bring their own unique voice into the genre.  Apparently, Jason Blum did make the attempt to court director Jennifer Kent, who made the cult horror hit The Babadook (2014), over to Blumhouse, but she refused and this seemed to convince him that women directors were just not interested to a great extent in horror.  He thankfully went back on his statement and reassured that he’ll try harder to bring a female voice into Blumhouse’s future output.  But this is something that’s indicative of an overall problem with the genre, which has sadly objectified women throughout the course of it’s history.  Women are not opposed to horror as a genre, but they have clearly lacked control over their own representation in the genre and it’s more important than ever that they be given that opportunity.  With the kind of clout that Blumhouse has right now, they can make that change happen, but they also need to realize that they need to look harder than they already do.

Despite their recent hiccups, the overall direction that Blumhouse has moved Hollywood in is a positive one.  Not only have they opened the door for more diversity in the creative talent behind their movies, but the industry is taking strong notice of their successful financial model.  More and more film companies are seeing that more modest budgets for movies with unique character is the best way to generate profit in the long run.  Also, allowing artists creative freedom helps to manage the high costs of the movies because actors and directors are more likely to take a smaller salary if they are allowed to do whatever they want instead of asking for 7 or 8 figure paydays for movies that they know full well are going to be garbage and are just using their name recognition to boost box office numbers.   Blumhouse has already made a name for themselves as a likely place for actors who want to make their first directorial effort, like the already mentioned Jordan Peele as well as Joel Edgerton with his horror thriller The Gift (2015).  Their model has already clearly had an influence on their nearest competing rival, the Michael Bay created Platinum Dunes production company.  Platinum Dunes spent much of it’s early years following the already uninspired horror film formula of the mid-2000’s, largely being responsible for critically panned remakes of horror classics like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003), Amityville Horror (2005), Friday the 13th (2009) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010).  But, thanks to the Blumhouse influence, who they co-produced The Purge (2013) with, they have changed their focus to reflect the new direction that horror has been moving towards.  Their recent hit, A Quiet Place (2018) reflects that, with a modest budgeted production built on atmosphere and crafted as a pet project from an already established star, John Krasinski; written, directed, and starring him and his real life wife, Emily Blunt.  Whether or not Krasinski would have made his movie there or somewhere else, it’s clear that Platinum Dunes wouldn’t have taken on the risk had they not seen Blumhouse’s success with like-minded films before.  As a result, you can see the way that more and more of the industry is seeing the benefits of Blumhouse’s model as a way of maximizing their output with all the future movies they have in production currently.

So, where does that leave Blumhouse in the future.  It’s clear that even though they have certainly become synonymous with the horror genre, they don’t intend on relying just on that alone.  They are already venturing out into other genres and while at the same time continuing to leave their mark with horror movies.  Their more long term goal is to make their business model the ideal for all Hollywood, especially when it comes to finding new talent.  They already have reinvigorated the careers of already established directors, like James Wan and M. Night Shaymalan, and have propelled the likely all star filmmakers of tomorrow too.  They are responsible for discovering director Damien Chazelle with his debut film Whiplash (2014) which was one of Blumhouse’s first non-horror theatrical releases and their first Best Picture nominee.  Chazelle of course went on to become the youngest Best Director winner in history, so you can see just how well a launching off point Blumhouse can be for fresh new talent.    But most horror film fans are grateful to Blumhouse for bringing the genre back to it’s basics.  Relying less on visual effects and more on atmosphere, Blumhouse horror seems much more in line with the roots of the genre, which always were more effective when dealing with the constraints of a modest budget.  That’s not to say that Blumhouse is making horror feel old-fashioned, but rather using the idea of not spoiling a good idea with too much film-making.  They are also revolutionizing the genre with fresh concepts never seen in the genre before like pointed social commentary directly from the minds of oppressed minority groups.  It’s also telling just how much trust they’ve earned within the industry when they are being trusted with carrying established genres into the next decade like Halloween and Spawn.  Both as a creative factory and as a role model for the industry at large, Blumhouse has managed to accomplish a lot over the last decade and it looks like their success will continue for many years to come.  More than anything else, they are beloved by horror fans around the world for helping to bring prestige back into the genre and show that these are films that are much more than scary movies, but worthwhile and provocative entertainment just like with any other genre.

First Man – Review

It’s a career long struggle to be at the top of your field for most people in the film industry.  It’s even rarer to see someone reach that level before they even reach middle age.  That’s been the case with film director Damien Chazelle.  Chazelle has seen a meteoric rise in Hollywood over the last couple of years, with only three feature films to his credit.  Starting off from the critical darling Whiplash (2014), Chazelle would undertake a very ambitious project for his second feature, which was also a long time dream project of his.  The musical feature La La Land (2016) caught fire immediately upon release and instantly made the thirty-something phenom a force to be reckoned with.  Of course, the movie has now garnered the notorious reputation of having lost out the Best Picture race, even despite it’s record tying 14 nominations, and having been mistakenly named the winner at the ceremony.  But, Damien still managed to walk away from the Oscars as the youngest Best Director winner in history at the astonishingly young age of 32.  Now, certainly, coming from an already affluent family and earning a degree from Harvard helped to give him a leg up that few others have the privilege of having in the industry, but it’s still undeniable that he is an enormously skilled filmmaker who, more than anything else, has a bold sense of how to use the medium to tell some larger than life stories.  Many rising stars among filmmakers tend to fluctuate between taking on big risks or steadily working with intimate, personal stories.  Damien Chazelle, it would seem, is eager to build upon what he has already built and push even further with the medium of film.  After taking on a tumultuous character study with Whiplash and a whimsical love story with La La Land, what appears to be the next adventure for the young director to pursue is the skies itself with the space based biopic, First Man.

First Man is another in what seems to be a quasi-Renaissance of films about the cosmos.  Starting off with Alfonso Cuaron’s ground-breaking thriller, Gravity (2013), we have seen a new film nearly every year that continues to use the final frontier as it’s point of interest.  Christopher Nolan delivered his epic exploration of deep space exploration with 2014’s Interstellar.  Ridley Scott followed that with The Martian (2015), a harrowing stranded on a desert island adventure where that lonely island just happens to be the fourth rock from the sun.  These were critical hits, but more recent space themed movies, like 2016’s Passengers, 2017’s Life, and this year’s Cloverfield Paradox have all proven underwhelming by comparison.  But what set’s First Man apart from all the more recent space themed movies is that it’s not looking into the future, but rather the past.  All the other movies are speculations of what space travel will be like in the years ahead, but First Man tells the story of how we got there in the first place.  It tells the story of the monumental Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969, and more importantly, sheds light on the personal story of the man in charge of the mission iteself; Astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon.  There have been many celebrated movies that have celebrated the achievements of the space race, from Phillip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff (1983) to Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 (1995).  There was also the delightful earthbound, behind the scenes movie of Hidden Figures (2016), which told the story of the women who figured out the math that made space travel possible.  But strangely, we have never seen a feature film about the historic mission to the moon itself, nor about Armstrong; which is partly due to the legendary figure’s insistence on privacy.  With First Man, director Damien Chazelle hopes to change that and shed light on what led to the giant leap for mankind.

The movie starts off showing Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) in his early career as a test pilot for rocket jets that were designed to launch into near orbit around earth.  After the tragic death of his young daughter from cancer, Neil is grounded due to questions about his mental stability.  He soon learns that the NASA program is seeking candidates for it’s Gemini program, which is intent on testing the possibilities of taking men on a mission to the moon.  Armstrong moves his family closer to the Houston command center and performs well at his interview.  He joins the Gemini team, where he quickly builds a friendship with his fellow trainees, Elliot See (Patrick Fugit) and Edward White (Jason Clarke).  Armstrong builds valuable experience along the way and is soon selected by the program’s director, Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler) to pilot the Gemini 8 rocket.  Not long after getting the honor, he learns of Elliott See’s tragic accident on a test flight.  Suffering another loss in his life, Armstrong finds solace in his work, which he takes to an almost manic level of seriousness.  Neil’s self imposed seclusion puts a strain on his relationship with his two sons, Rick and Mark, as well as his patient but over-burdened wife, Janet (Claire Foy).  Neil manages to successfully conclude the docking test aboard the Gemini 8 capsule, but a malfunction nearly brings him to the brink of death and casts doubt on the future of the moon landing itself.  This coupled with the tragic Apollo 1 fire that claimed the lives of three astronauts, including Ed White, and the future of NASA becomes pretty dire.  Out of all this, Neil Armstrong is selected alongside Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) and Mike Collins (Lukas Haas) to command the pivotal Apollo 11 mission that’s been picked for the actual landing.  With so much at stake, both personally and historically, Armstrong must pull together in order to do the impossible.

The first challenge for a filmmaker tackling a historic event is to make a story that everyone knows the outcome to feel brand new.  We all know how the Apollo 11 mission turned out; everything went according to plan without incident and all three astronauts returned home safely and lived prosperous lives for many years after.  First Man needed to find another way to build tension for it’s retelling of the mission in order to work as a film, and it does so by chronicling the enormous struggle it took to get to the moon.  The movie isn’t so much a film about the Apollo 11 mission itself as it is a personal journey through the years long process it took for NASA to finally work out all the problems and get everything right.  In this regard, the movie succeeds spectacularly.  The most fascinating aspect of the movie is in witnessing the human cost that it took on the people in the Gemini and Apollo missions.  Lives were lost in tragic ways, which left a deep scar emotionally on those left behind.  Damien Chazelle does a great job of showing the emotional toll that keeps building on these people over time, as they watch friends and loved ones die suddenly.  And the shocking aspect of the movie is that very little time was allowed for these men and their wives to grieve, because the mission to the moon was so paramount and they all had to bury their sorrow quickly and move on.  What the movie brilliantly lays out is the fact that reaching the moon was a hard fought victory, and by the time the lander does reach the surface, you feel the full weight of what has just been accomplished.  I love how poetic the actual scene on the moon is, because it’s almost tranquil compared to the whirlwind of emotions that preceded it.  The movie finds it’s greatest success in building the tension through the human experience of what these guys went through to get to this moment, and once we finally do reach the moon, the film graciously lets us breath and enjoy the beauty.

Unfortunately, in order to do justice to the tumultuous trial and error that it took to reach the moon, the movie sacrifices something important that might have helped to elevate it just a little more.  The movie is strangely emotionally vacant when it comes to the human story, as we don’t really get a good sense of who these people are and what makes them tick.  The movie attempts it’s best shot at understanding the person that was Neil Armstrong, but I feel that by the end he remains an enigma to the viewer.  That’s not to say that Ryan Gosling gives a bad performance; quite the contrary, he gives one of his best performances yet in this movie.  I think the problem lies in the fact that Damien Chazelle is working from a script that is not his own (a first) and from a writer whose style is very different from what Chazelle likes to work with.  The script was written by Josh Singer, an Oscar winner for the movie Spotlight (2015).  What Singer is great at as a writer is detailing historical events through meticulous detail and finding a compelling story within, which he managed to do so well in a movie like Spotlight and more recently Steven Spielberg’s The Post (2017).  But, at the same time, his scripts are not character studies.  The people within his scripts fill their roles, are often very interesting, but are ultimately not what drives the story, that instead being the event itself.  Chazelle on the other hand is much more comfortable exploring the minds of his characters, often to uncomfortable points, like the tumultuous relationships he explored in Whiplash and La La Land.  First Man finds the director out of his comfort zone and I don’t quite believe he found the emotional center of this movie the way he would’ve liked to because of the scripts limitations.  The details about the mission are still brilliantly staged, but when it cuts back to Armstrong’s domestic life, the movie feels like it looses it’s way.  I wanted to understand more about what Armstrong was like as a person, and I feel that the movie didn’t quite deliver on that.  It does show flashes where Armstrong seems to still be haunted by the memory of his daughter, which might have been true, but it just comes across as a fabrication on the filmmakers part to try to find some explanation that they honestly didn’t have an answer for.

Despite the shortcomings of the film’s script and emotional weight, I still have to commend the craft that was put into it.  The movie is visually stunning, and shows that Damien Chazelle is still exploring new ways to play around with the medium.  I like the fact that he is continuing to experiment with different kinds of film stock for his movies.  After shooting La La Land in the rarely used Cinemascope 55 format, which helped to give that movie an old-fashioned Hollywood musical texture to it’s lavish visuals, he takes a whole different approach to First Man which not only affects the aesthetic of the movie, but also offers up some underlining thematics as well.  The majority of the movie is actually shot in 16 mm, a very grainy format often used by small budget movies and documentaries.  The effect really helps to sell the intimacy of the production, putting the viewer right in the center of the action, as if they were watching a documentary.  This really helps to amp up the tension in some of the more intense scenes when the astronauts are launching into space.  Damien Chazelle really captures the cramp, claustrophobic feeling of being inside one of those capsules, something which the grainy detail of the 16 mm image really enhances.  It also feels appropriate to the era, as most of the footage we have of the behind the scenes workings of NASA during the 60’s also comes in the form of 16 mm stock footage.  But, once the moment arrives when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin take their first steps on the moon, Damien Chazelle does something very bold.  The two astronauts open the hatch, and suddenly the movie shifts to stunning 70 mm IMAX.  You don’t really get the full effect unless you see the movie projected in IMAX (like I did), but it’s still an incredible effect.  Suddenly the film shifts to ultra high definition and bold colors that only IMAX can fully exploit, and it spectacularly presents the majesty of the moment.  Thematically it fits with the rest of the film itself, with grainy 16 mm signifying uncertainty before the mission and IMAX revealing the clarity of what all this was leading up to.  It shows that cinematicly, Damien Chazelle is still using his position as direction to really make some bold choices, and this movie benefits greatly from that in a visual standpoint.

Damein Chazelle has actually stated that he’s looked at the movies of Christopher Nolan as an inspiration point when it came to finding the epic scope of the film’s biggest moments, and it’s very apparent from the way he stages the crucial parts in outer space.  There are a few parallels with this and the movie Interstellar, especially the shots showing the exteriors of the spacecrafts, but First Man breaks from it’s predecessor by never venturing too far away from those crafts either.  Christopher Nolan balanced a lot of his movie out with close up shots of his spacecrafts as well as wide shots that accentuated just how insignificant they were in the great expanse of the cosmos.  First Man never goes that far, and keeps much of the visuals close to the human element as possible.  There are one or two wide shots of the moon in all it’s glory, but most of what we see is from the point of view of the astronauts.  This helps to give the movie a very valuable “you are there” experience, and we the viewer feel like we’ve been dropped into the cockpit with Neil and Buzz.  When you see the surface of the moon coming closer and closer through the port windows of the lander, you have the same amount of anticipation as the astronauts do, and that landing sequence is easily the film’s most effective moment.  I have to give a lot of praise to both the film’s visual effects unit and it’s sound design team.  The movie makes brilliant use of large scale models in it’s recreation of the rockets that launched the astronauts into space, as well as the moon itself.  It’s all shown very subtly, further enhancing the realism that the movie is intending to achieve.  And if there is an absolutely certain Oscar win in this movie’s future, it’s the sound design.  You hear every moan, clank, and bang of these spacecrafts as they go through the harrowing experience of launching past the Earth’s atmosphere and reaching the vastness of Space.  Those sounds especially reinforce the claustrophobia of every scene as well, and drives up the tension even further.  I love the fact that all the noise of the movie completely disappears once the hatch is opened on the moon and all that we hear thereafter is the actual recordings of Armstong on the moon followed by a graceful musical underscore by Oscar winner Justin Hurwitz.  For a movie that so aggressively amps up the cacophony of noises that the astronauts had to endure to reach their goal, the movie ends on a wonderfully quiet and peaceful climax.

As a chronicle of the greatest achievement of mankind in the 20th century, First Man largely succeeds.  I found myself fascinated by the steps that it took to get to that moment, and what that meant to the world as a result.  I certainly never considered the human cost that was involved before and the movie really shows how this moment in history was hard won.  I just wish that the film had balanced that with a closer look at the people themselves.  Everyone’s personalities are fixed and there are no great arcs for the people in this story; not even Neil Armstrong.  I feel that this is the one disappointing thing in what is otherwise a brilliantly staged production.  I believe that this is more a flaw of the script itself rather than anything else, because the very talented cast does their best to work as much personality as they can into these historical figures.  Corey Stoll does the best out of the bunch as his version of Buzz Aldrin comes off as obnoxious in the most humorous kind of way.  I also thought Claire Foy used her brief moments of passion as the long frustrated wife of Neil Armstong to great effect, finding the strength in what is otherwise an underwritten role.  Gosling, probably had the hardest job to undertake as Neil Armstrong was one of the least known figures of the early days of NASA.  Armstrong never sought publicity or actively argued that he should be the first.  He was the first man to walk on the moon simply because someone had to be.  The movie, as well as Gosling as an actor, seems to have had it’s arms tied as a result, because there is very little to actually mine from this man’s life.  Armstrong rarely did interviews, never wrote a memoir, and all we know about him is from the recollections of his friends and family.  As a result, the movie works best as a chronicle of his achievements, but not as an examination of his character.  For a director like Chazelle, whose work up to now has been primarily focused on intimate portraits of personal struggles, this unfortunately feels like a step backwards for the director.  But only in a storytelling sense, as he continues to impress as a visual artist, becoming even more confident working with a larger scale.  It is still great to see an ambitious film finally devoted to this moment in history, emphasizing it’s importance and how much it propelled us forward as a civilization.  And Chazelle and company do honor it with a great deal of profound respect.  For this still young director, it will be interesting how he takes the next leap forward himself in future projects.

Rating: 8/10

Off the Page – I am Legend

With the month of October arriving once again, audiences begin to crave the twisted thrills of horror on the big screen as it provides the right kind of atmosphere to match the tidings of this Halloween season.  Hollywood has long provided generations worth of taut, scary thrillers of all kinds to satisfy their audiences, and it’s interesting to see how many different varieties have sprung up over the years.  Universal Pictures popularized the monster flick with their rogues gallery of classic baddies.  The 1950’s sci-fi craze began the era of the creature feature, which also saw the international contributions of Japanese cinema which popularized their giant Kaiju creatures like Godzilla (1954).  Then of course the 70’s and the 80’s brought the rise of the slasher flick, which would go on to popularize new, very human monsters like Jason Voorhies, Freddy Kruger, and Michael Myers.  But the current era of horror has yet to yield it’s own definable icons like ages past.  More often than not, the nostalgia heavy culture we live in is more concerned with reinventing past movie monsters rather than creating new ones, like the upcoming Halloween reboot is about to.  But if there is one cinematic creature that has really carved out an identity in the last couple years, it would be the zombie.  For a while, zombie flicks became a red hot property in Hollywood, with both major studios and independent companies all taking their stab at it.  Some would say it probably became over saturated for a while, as it seemed like it was all that Hollywood was producing at the time.  But it’s all been in response to a genre that largely became devoid of anything original for a long time, and at least with the zombie flick, you didn’t have to rely on the same monster every time.  Zombies became popular because of their lack of definition and because audiences recognized that the scariest possible thing in the world is that the monsters could be us.

The zombie flick may be popular now, but it’s roots extend further back.  There were many films about the rising of dead dating back to Hollywood’s early years.  There was the Bela Lugosi headlined thriller White Zombie (1932), though that was more about hypnotic control rather than the undead.  Ed Wood had alien controlled zombies in his camp classic Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959).  But, the genre wouldn’t see it’s true cinematic emergence until George A. Romero’s universally beloved Night of the Living Dead (1968).  Romero’s film has since become the gold standard for all zombie movies since, defining among many things how the creatures would appear and act, what their weakness are, how they pose a danger to society, and most importantly, showing how survivors react when faced with the threat of a zombie attack.  The legacy of that low budget, but extremely effective film are still felt today.  But, despite how ground-breaking Living Dead was as a touchstone for the zombie sub-genre, the movie still owes a great deal to another inspiration; one that of course comes from literature.  George Romero does point to the novel I am Legend as an inspiration for his film, and it’s clear to see what left an impression on him.  Published in 1954 from writer Richard Matheson, I am Legend is largely seen as the originator of the modern zombie narrative, chronicling the aftermath of a pandemic that wipes out most human life on earth and showing a lonely survivor’s livelihood in a world now filled with the infected.  It’s easy to see that the concept of the survivors’ story in a post apocalyptic world really resonated with the likes of Romero plus many others, and it’s effect no doubt touched Hollywood as well.  Several adaptations have been made of I am Legend, including some wildly disparate versions like The Last Man on Earth (1964) and The Omega Man (1971).  A far more earnest take on tackling the novel faithfully didn’t come until 2007 however, with the big budget version directed by Francis Lawrence (Hunger Games series) and starring Will Smith.  But earnest doesn’t always mean faithful, and the 2007 film I am Legend shows how trying to bring a modern sensibility to a classic story doesn’t always result in a film that’s as effective as the written word.

“My name is Robert Neville.  I am a survivor living in New York City.”

For the most part, the movie does a fairly good job of following the basic premise of the story.  Society has fallen due to a pandemic that caused the human population to turn into vampiric zombies.  In the novel, Matheson does have rely on this hybrid concept of zombies that act like vampires, including retaining the same weaknesses like aversion to garlic and holy images, which in a way seems like a rather unnecessary addition to the story.  Why would a disease suddenly make these once human creatures react so harshly to crucifixes and the like?  Just wondering.  But, the one vampiric trait that does help drive the story is that these zombies cannot survive in the daylight.  The movie wisely uses this as the basic trait of the zombies, as they only pose a threat in the nighttime, which drives the feeling of isolation for the main character.  Neville, or as he’s known Dr. Robert Neville in the film, is the only human left immune to the disease that transformed humanity, surviving by himself in the crumbling infrastructure of a once booming metropolis (Los Angeles in the book, New York in the movie).  There, he scavenges for food, supplies, and other essentials before barricading himself up in his home while the zombie vampires swarm around his home at night.  All the while, he researches to find the cause and possibly a cure for the disease in the hope of reversing it’s affects and bringing society back to where it was.  The book and the movie stick very close together for the first half, and most of the movie’s earliest scenes do a really effective job of world building.  The images of Manhattan Island crumbling after years of neglect and foliage now overtaking the once concrete jungle are strikingly realized.  In this regard, I am Legend does the best job we’ve seen yet of capturing the landscape of the novel.  Only once the plot starts to deviate that some of the problems in the adaptation begin to arise and the film itself starts to fall apart.

“This is ground zero.  This is my site. I can fix this.”

It’s actually frustrating watching the movie version of I am Legend after reading the original novel, because there are many points that the movie does get right.  For one thing, Will Smith’s performance is actually quite good in the movie.  The actor forgoes his usually “slick Willy” swagger in favor of portraying a broken man who’s slowly losing his faith in a better tomorrow.  I love how the movie also portrays the way he deals with his isolation.  Throughout his daily routine, Neville goes out into the city and visits the same locations for his rations, including visiting a video store where he picks out something to watch back home.  In every spot, he has set up department store mannequins, posed individually like they are going about their lives, and he interacts with them as if they were real people.  One might look at this as a sign of insanity brought on by extended isolation, but it’s also a clever coping mechanism to allow for Neville to keep his remaining sanity in tact.  The mannequins are an addition to the movie not found in the novel, and it works really well, helping to add another dimension to Neville’s character that is worthwhile.  The film also expands on a subplot from the book involving Neville befriending a dog, who becomes his companion for a while.  The film’s highlight is the heartbreaking point where the dog becomes infected and Neville has to put him down, which is effectively staged for the maximum amount of pathos.  And these moments hint at a movie that not only could have been faithful to the source material, but also could have transcended it.  Unfortunately, the film’s second, more conventional half reveals a different story, and one that sees a revisit from that old cinematic menace; studio interference.

The problem first begins when Neville is visited by other survivors who have the same immunity that he does.  There is a similar episode in the books, where Neville finds another person walking the streets in the middle of the day just as he has been.  This mysterious person, named Ruth, plays a wildly different role for the original story than the two new surviors in the movie, named Anna and Ethan (Alice Braga and Charlie Tahan) do in their roles.  For the most part, Alice and Ethan serve merely as motivation for Neville to do what he was already on his way towards doing without the despair getting in the way, which is using his resources to find a cure.  They are largely superfluous and are clearly there to give the movie a more conventional hero arc to Neville, basically meant to live to tell his story and make him a “legend.”  But that’s not the message that the book had in mind.  The big revelation about Ruth is (spoilers) that she is one of the infected as well, and has proven to Neville that those who have been infected have not lost all their humanity in the process.  In fact, during the nighttime hours in which Neville has been sleeping in fear, the more sentient of the infected (mainly those who succumbed to it while they were still living) are still conscious of their being and have been trying to live their lives normally under the conditions, even seeking medication themselves.  They have even domesticated some of the more feral (undead) zombies in the process, and have used them to hunt those who would hurt them, like Neville.  It’s through this revelation that Neville becomes aware that as he has grown to fear and hate the zombie infected, they have reacted the same to him, and that he is even more of a monster from their perspective.  It’s revealed that Neville was responsible for killing Ruth’s own husband, making Neville realize that his lack of view of their humanity has made him aware of just how much he has lost his own.  In the novel’s closing chapter, Neville reflects on how he has become the monster that preys on these new creatures while they sleeping, saying, “I am a new superstition entering the unassailable fortress of forever.  I am legend,” the passage which gives the story it’s name.

“The people, who were trying to make this world worse… are not taking a day off.  How can I? Light up the darkness.”

Through this plot development, we see how Richard Matheson takes his story about vampire zombies and turns it into an allegorical story of mankind’s cruelty towards the natural world.  It never dawned in Neville’s mind up until that point that he might be the villain; he was just doing what he could to survive another day.  It’s that compromise of morals in desperate times that becomes the message of Matheson’s story, and it’s one that has likewise been very influential in zombie flicks and post-apocalyptic stories ever since.  You see this in stuff like the Mad Max franchise and the Walking Dead TV-series, where the biggest threat isn’t the environment nor the undead zombies that have infested it. but rather the other desperate survivors among you who would just as readily kill you if it meant they would live another day.  Desperation is the great leveler of civilization found in the story of I am Legend, and it’s a powerfully delivered message as well.  So, it makes it doubly frustrating when the movie that is a direct adaptation of the book, completely disposes of that message.  The truth is, when Hollywood invests so much into a big budget film, they are less willing to accept a more downbeat moral such as the one found in the book as the backbone of their story.  Instead of being revealed as the layered character that he is the books, Neville falls into the mold of your typical savior figure who ends up saving the world.  The movie even has him going out in a blaze of glory, blowing himself up with a grenade in the middle of a swarm of zombies, after conveniently discovering a cure minutes earlier and giving it to Anna and Ethan as they make their escape.  There’s no allegory, no satisfying turnabout of Neville’s character.  Everything is shaded in the black and white morality of humans beating back the scary monsters, which makes the story feel very unoriginal and contrary to the way it started.

And yet there is even a more problematic aspect to the way that the movie ended; it wasn’t always supposed to be that way.  Director Francis Lawrence actually shot another ending for the film that was closer to the original.  In this alternative ending, after Neville and the other survivors are cornered in his basement laboratory by a swarm of enraged (and poorly animated) zombies, Neville makes the shocking realization that the test subject that he retrieved days earlier was in fact the mate of the zombie’s alpha leader.  In this moment, he realizes that he committed a kidnapping and that the zombies are only there to get back one of their own, and not to kill, unless provoked.  Like his novel counterpart, movie Neville realizes he’s been a monster by not seeing the humanity that’s still in these creatures and he makes the conscious choice to let his last chance at a cure go in order to settle a peace with the creatures.  This more complex ending, as it turns out, did not focus group well, and Warner Brothers decided to force a last minute re-shoot of the scene to create the more conventional ending.  But, in doing so, it robs the remainder of the story of any real satisfaction.  The ending from the book may not be ideal, but it is nevertheless though provoking.  The ending of the movie is generic and forgettable.  The movie may not have gained a bad reputation if this alternate ending was never seen, but for some reason Warner stuck it onto the home video release and marketed the alternate version as well, like they were proud of it.  But if you were so proud of it, why didn’t you include it in the original movie.  To me, it’s an extreme case of the studio not having the faith in the original story and not trusting their audience to be open to something more complex than the “save the day” narrative.  Couple this with a lot of unnecessary scenes of explaining to the audience what led up to this (including a weird cameo from Emma Thompson in the prologue, playing the doctor who inadvertently caused the pandemic with her believed cure for cancer) and you’ve got a clear indication that the studio was not fully on board with all this, and tried to dumb the movie down.  The thing that made I am Legend so memorable was that it made the reader feel unsafe and as a result terrified of what turn might come next.  The movie leaves no surprises and scares absolutely no one.

“God didn’t do this.  We did.”

And that’s a shame too, because there are flashes of brilliance in the movie adaptation.  Will Smith’s performance is effective up until that unnecessary ending, and I love the fact that his version of Neville is proactive in trying to retain some level of normality in this world.  I get the feeling from that and the alternate ending that both him and the director wanted to come close to the message of the original story, but were undercut by the powers that be at Warners.  In the end, the movie is a pale imitation of what could have been had the studio been more confident in the story.  Richard Matheson knew that he was making a story not about monsters, but about people, and how sometimes evil acts are committed once we begin to lose that grasp of humanity that is ever so crucial in our society.  There are so many cases where horrible, evil movements are created by demonizing another group as the “other” in modern society, and it’s even scarier when a person doesn’t even realize they are falling in that hole.  Like many others, Neville believes that he is doing the right thing by fighting back against these zombies, but once he sees that these are beings who are struggling to survive just like him and that he’s been the menace in their lives, then the horrifying realization becomes apparent and he has to cope with the awareness of the evil that he has wrought.  We are all susceptible to same downward spiral that Neville succumbs to, and that’s a frightening concept that has made this such a profound horrific story over time.   Unfortunately, we have yet to see a movie capture Matheson’s story faithfully, though many films inspired by the novel have lived up to the spirit of it.  Zombie movies can be quite scary when done right, but it becomes all the more unsettling once it shows the toll that it takes on those who manage to survive, and that even overcoming such a threat can awaken an even greater evil among the survivors.

“Nothing happened the way it was supposed to happen.”