Friday the 13th Part III

Friday the 13th Part III (1982)

Dir. Steve Miner

Written by: Martin Kitrosser & Carol Watson

Starring: Dana Kimmell, Larry Zerner, Richard Brooker

 

The second sequel to Friday the 13th is quite possibly the worst of the five films in the series that I own, and it is likely in the running for one of the worst entries in the franchise, in general. Friday the 13th Part III is another tired rehash of the territory trod in the first two films, with another group of relatively anonymous young people arriving at Crystal Lake to serve as quarry for a rampaging Jason. Though director Steve Miner attempted to modernize and reinvigorate the series with his second stint as director, particularly through the use of new 3D film technology, Part III simply hasn’t aged well and it doesn’t hold up favorably to the rest of the early films in the series. It is notable for a couple of additions to the series’ canon, and for being the first ever 3D film to receive a wide theatrical release, but aside from that, it’s a largely forgettable movie.

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Part III is a direct sequel to Part 2, beginning with a wounded Jason Vorhees (Brooker) arriving at a rural convenience store in search of clothing and shelter. Jason quickly kills off the couple who owns the store and seeks refuge in a nearby abandoned house on Crystal Lake. At the same time, Chris (Kimmell) and her friends are on their way to a weekend getaway at the lake. Unbeknownst to the group of friends, however, they are in for a less than relaxing time on their vacation. Chris’s family lake house just happens to be the same one that Jason has chosen as his new home, and when the friends arrive there, he starts to his usual business of dismembering young people. Along the way, two of Chris’s friends, Shelly (Zerner) and Vera (Catherine Parks), run afoul of some bikers, who initially seem to be a bigger threat to their wellbeing than the homicidal maniac hiding in the barn, but Jason quickly proves himself to be the apex predator in this ecosystem. The movie unfolds predictably until only Chris is left to confront Jason. She manages to get the best of Jason, hanging him from a beam in the barn, before burying an ax in his forehead, but like Alice and Ginny before her, Chris is left deeply traumatized by her ordeal.

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While Miner goes to great lengths in Part III to change the series’ tone and visual aesthetic, the narrative and plot structure of the film remain largely unchanged from the first two entries in the series. The embrace of 3D technology is an admirable attempt to revolutionize the style of the slasher genre, and I have to imagine that it likely made some of the film’s many kill scenes that much more intense and satisfying for audiences at the time, but while watching the movie on home video over thirty years after its initial release the 3D doesn’t have the same sort of effect. Rather than adding vitality to the horror, the effects simply look dated and cheesy. The filmmakers’ insistence on including 3D in such a prevalent role, but also introducing the effects in largely hamfisted ways, leads to an overall watering down effect, and, for modern viewers, draws attention to the effects in a negative way. The bad effects do add a camp factor to the film, however, and they pair nicely with one of its only silver linings: Miner’s decision to introduce a lighter, more humorous tone to this sequel. It seems likely that he knows that even with the addition of the 3D gimmick, audiences couldn’t take another paint-by-numbers Friday the 13th sequel seriously so he decided to try to include elements of camp and humor to the film, to mixed effect.

One of the biggest problems with trying to add an element of silliness to the proceedings in Part III is that the cast is simply not talented enough to pull off even the most broad comedy. Zerner is ostensibly supposed to be the funny guy, but most of his jokes simply revolve around the idea that he’s ugly and a loser. He’s a practical joker, sure, but these attempts at humor make the character more annoying rather than really funny. Ditto for Chuck (David Katims) and Chili (Rachel Howard), Chris’s two stoner friends, who never rise above a C-level Cheech and Chong impression before they’re summarily dispatched by Jason. Even though the attempts at humor largely fall flat, I have to commend Miner and the screenwriters for trying to change the tone of this film from the first two in the franchise, because had they tried to play it straight and really attempt some scares, the end result would have been an even bigger disaster. One of the only things making the film watchable for me is the fact that it seems like all of the cast and crew know that they’re making a terrible movie and they decide to have a bit of fun with it.

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I can’t really endorse watching Friday the 13th Part III today, but I do wonder what it would be like to watch the movie in a movie theater in 1982. It still would have been a pretty objectively terrible movie, I’m sure, but would some of its campy charm have taken hold seeing the effects as they were meant to be seen? If so, I could probably see myself viewing this as a superior sequel to Part 2, simply because it doesn’t require the narrative gymnastics that that film requires in relation to its predecessor, and because both films feature fairly uninspired performances, predictable plots, and a plethora of gory kills. They’re essentially the same movie, but Part III aims to broaden its appeal by introducing actual attempts at humor, and seen in the proper context, I’m sure that its effects were decently impressive for their time. Plus Part III has the added bonus of being the film in which Jason receives his trademark hockey mask, a souvenir taken from a freshly killed Shelly. That moment alone gives it a bit more cred with fans of the series, but still I can only judge Part III based on the copy of it that I own and am most familiar with, and without the added benefit of being presented in its proper 3D format, the movie isn’t a success for me.

Friday the 13th Pt. 2

Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981)

Dir. Steve Miner

Written by: Ron Kurz (based on characters created by Victor Miller)

Starring: Amy Steel, John Furey, Warrington Gillette/Steve Dash

 

The first sequel in the Friday the 13th series marks a decision on the part of the series’ creators to eschew their original plans of making an anthology horror film series and to double down on tales of psycho killer Jason Vorhees hunting lustful teens in the remote woods of New Jersey. Predating the eventual sequels to earlier slashers Halloween and Texas Chainsaw Massacre, as well as the entire run of A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th Part 2 marks the first movie, that I know of, to introduce the trope of the immortal or invulnerable slasher. The ending of Halloween hints at Michael Meyers’s indestructability, but this sequel is the first that brings us a killer who was, ostensibly, killed off in the first film, in this case as a child, no less. Other than that minor innovation, the film otherwise sticks to the basic slasher template, and provides a handful of satisfying kills, but few real scares. It hews closely to the plot and pacing of the original, and though it’s the first film in the series to feature an adult Jason, it fails to really break any new ground or push the series forward in a meaningful way.

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The sequel begins shortly after the original Friday the 13th left off, with that film’s heroine, Alice (Adrienne King), still haunted by nightmares of her ordeal at Camp Crystal Lake and of the undead boy, Jason, who she dreamt emerged from the lake at the film’s end to drag her to her death. It turns out that her fears are warranted, as a fully-grown Jason (Gillette/Dash) has stalked her to her home and the film’s first scene culminates with him avenging his mother’s death at the hands of Alice in Friday the 13th. From there, the film flashes forward five years and the audience is introduced to a new group of camp counselors who are attending a counselor training program led by Paul (Furey) at a camp adjacent to Camp Crystal Lake. These counselors are young, horny, and stupid, with few distinguishing character traits, much like the group of counselors in the original. As such, it isn’t particularly shocking or emotionally devastating when Jason descends upon the camp, skewering and slashing counselors right and left. Eventually, Paul’s girlfriend Ginny (Steel) emerges as a final girl, ready to do battle with Jason. She discovers a hut in the woods where Jason has apparently been hiding out for years, building a shrine to his dead mother with her severed head and articles of her clothing. Ginny uses these to imitate Mrs. Vorhees, tricking Jason into letting his guard down so that she can attack him, wounding him enough to make her escape. Ultimately, Ginny makes it out alive, but, like Alice, she is robbed of her sanity and sense of security.

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Aside from the first appearance of a mature Jason as the film’s killer, Friday the 13th Part 2 doesn’t offer much variation from the template established by the original film. This sequel exists solely as a cash-in on the popularity of the original film, and it isn’t surprising that most of the creative team behind the original opted not to participate in the series moving forward. Some of the movie’s kills stand out, and the body count is escalated, but there is little innovation or evolution in this entry in the series. In fact, Part 2’s narrative so severely retcons the original’s narrative to facilitate its own existence that it has been widely lampooned by both fans and creatives involved in the series’ initial creation. If, as this sequel posits, Jason had been alive the entire time, hiding out in a hut by Crystal Lake, why didn’t he simply reunite with his mother at some point? And, short of that, how did he survive alone in the woods for nearly three decades without being spotted by some camper, hunter, or other person? I don’t always look for strong narrative continuity in slasher films, particularly in hastily thrown together sequels, but this level of narrative implausibility is really hard to look past. Not only does it not further the Friday the 13th canon, it severely disrupts it, opening up the rest of the series to an escalating chain of narrative disruptions and flimsy excuses to return the infamous Crystal Lake killer from the dead. The film gains points for being the first to introduce Jason, an iconic horror figure who has become larger that the franchise itself, but it’s hard for me not to wonder what the creative brain trust behind the original film could have done together if the series had moved in the originally intended direction and abandoned the Crystal Lake setting altogether in favor of a new tale of terror. As it stands, however, Part 2 moved the film in a direction that would see it largely recreating the same scenario over and over again with slight variations on the setting.

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There isn’t much else to say about the film. Its cast of characters is largely indistinguishable, even more so than in the original, serving only as fodder for Jason’s homicidal rampage. Characters stand out for a few physical traits, perhaps, such as one counselor who is confined to a wheelchair, and another who is obviously cast as the camp clown, but they’re otherwise simply bowling pins set up to be knocked down in, admittedly, entertaining and clever ways by Jason and his array of sharp and pointy objects. The dialogue and performances in the film are laughable, as should be expected for a slasher of its type. Overall, this sequel has the feeling of being scraped together quickly to cash in on the success of its predecessor and to establish the long term viability of a franchise centered on the character of Jason Vorhees. In those respects, it’s a film that is successful. It pays some fealty to the original with its extra-long precredit sequence involving Jason returning to murder the heroine from the first film, and then splits off on a new, if nonsensical, parallel track from which the ensuing sequels would spring. For better or for worse, Friday the 13th Part 2 established the now familiar paradigm in slasher franchises that the killer can be brought back from the dead for any reason or no reason at all, as long as audiences seem willing to plunk down their hard-earned cash at the cinema box office. It certainly isn’t the worst film in the franchise, but it doesn’t hold up favorably to the original for me, simply because it hews so closely to the structure and plot of that film. It gains a few points for introducing Jason, albeit without his iconic hockey mask, but it’s largely too redundant of a movie for me to want to give it much time or attention. The original packs a similar amount of scares and has an air of novelty about it, and Jason would be given better films to terrorize later in the series, so despite its importance in changing the direction of the franchise, Part 2 feels largely extraneous to me.

Friday the 13th

Friday the 13th (1980)

Dir. Sean S. Cunningham

Written by: Victor Miller

Starring: Betsy Palmer, Adrienne King, Harry Crosby III

 

During the month of July, I will be writing exclusively about the Friday the 13th movie franchise. The series is a classic of the slasher genre, and during my teens, I harbored a pretty healthy obsession with all things horror, so naturally I started collecting DVDs from the series. I currently own the first five movies in the franchise, and, fortuitously, July has five Sundays, so this will be the official Friday the 13th month on my site. Some of these posts might be a little shorter than my normal review because, to be honest, these movies can get a bit repetitive as the series goes on, but I’ll try to keep it interesting and look into what makes each of these movies work (or not, as the case may be) both as a film and within the confines of their own micro-genre. There’s no better place to start than at the very beginning with the first visit to Camp Crystal Lake, and the movie that launched the most financially successful horror franchise of all time.

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The original Friday the 13th begins with the re-opening of Camp Crystal Lake, in New Jersey, after some twenty years of dormancy. The camp was shuttered after some negligent camp counselors let a young camper, Jason, drown in the lake. However, a new group of counselors arrives at the campground, ready to fix it up and reopen the camp for the summer, despite the warnings of the townsfolk about the campground, which they refer to as “Camp Blood,” being cursed. In the midst of a terrible storm, the counselors are separated as a killer stalks through the woods. In predictable fashion, the unheeded warnings prove to be warranted, and counselors start disappearing one after another as it becomes apparent that the group is not alone at Crystal Lake.

Though it was clearly inspired by earlier slashers like Halloween, Friday the 13th is largely responsible for setting the genre template for the modern slasher film. It upped the ante on blood and gore, and moved the setting from the suburbs to a remote, rural campground, heightening the sense of fear and isolation in the movie. Though all of its generic tropes have become rote by now, they must have seemed fresh and shocking when the film was released in 1980, causing audiences to flock to the movie which became a run-away box office success. The film’s popularity might be largely due to the fact that it alters the established slasher template enough to seem novel at the time, replacing the creeping dread of Last House on the Left with a more episodic, start and stop type of horror, with kills popping up at random and causing a roller coaster type of thrill effect on the audience. The film also eschews some of the more disturbing aspects of hardcore horror films that preceded it like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, making for a more accessible and easier to digest horror movie experience. While it’s certainly gruesome, Friday the 13th feels more like escapism than a broadcast from a doomed and sickening society, which early Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper films certainly resemble. Cunningham is more intent on causing jump scares than creating a world that’s skin-crawlingly disturbing, and the end result is a horror film that feels lighter, though no less vital or important, than its contemporaries.

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Friday the 13th is an altogether predictable movie. From the outset, the audience knows that the warnings from the townsfolk ought to be heeded by the counselors, and they also know that the entire film is predicated on the counselors not heeding those warnings and continuing to be typical sex-crazed teens. Like most slashers, Friday the 13th equates sex and death, in most cases quite explicitly, with the counselors being murdered either during, or right after performing, a sex act. I think this inherent conservatism in slashers is something that’s always interested me, the thinking that young people should be punished (with death) for being sexually explorative. I’m not sure why, as I strongly believe that people have an inherent right to freedom of sexual expression provided that they’re acting responsibly and consensually, but I’ve always been curious about the equivalence of sex and murder in horror movies. Often, the killers in these films as viewed as someone whose sexual deviance or impropriety has driven them to kill, or they’re shown as being so psychosexually repressed that they are driven to seek out victims who they feel are acting out urges that they are unwilling to claim and act upon, so they choose to pass lethal judgment on these victims. Friday the 13th carries on this tradition, established in earlier horror films, and helps it to cement its place as a hardwired genre trope.

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The one thing that is relatively untraditional about the original Friday the 13th is that it features a female killer. The killer is never seen throughout the early parts of the film, instead her presence is implied through point-of-view shots and the film’s now iconic score. When the killer is finally revealed, it’s not the familiar hockey mask-sporting Jason, but instead his mother, played by Betsy Palmer. Mrs. Vorhees was a cook at Camp Crystal Lake, and, as she explains to Alice (King), the last surviving counselor, her son, Jason, was the young boy who drowned in the lake, prompting the camp to close. It dawns on Alice that she is in the presence of the person who murdered her friends, and she takes off, providing one final, thrilling chase scene. The usage of a female killer, though not entirely novel at the time, certainly provides for an unexpected twist at the film’s end. Up to this point, all signs had pointed to some sort of supernatural explanation for the return of the drowned Jason, but Mrs. Vorhees’s is an earthbound entity with a practical reason to want to seek her revenge. I can remember finally getting to see the original movie in the franchise and being shocked that there was no Jason. I had only seen a handful of the later sequels on television, and I just assumed that the killer would show up in his familiar hockey mask, wielding a machete, and so I was rather taken aback when there was little mention of Jason at all. This genuine surprise gives the film a bit of depth that many of its sequels lack and ups its rewatchability quotient.

The original Friday the 13th isn’t the high water mark of quality for the series, nor is it the highest grossing entry in the franchise, but it was unique and successful enough to spawn its incredible lineage. The franchise was originally conceived of as a series of anthology films, but the original’s epilogue, in which an exhausted Alice falls asleep in a canoe drifting out to middle of Camp Crystal Lake after decapitating Mrs. Vorhees, only to be roused by a pale, bloated young Jason emerging from the depths of the lake to try and drag her to her death, practically demanded that a sequel centering on the undead Jason be released. These sequels would vary wildly in quality, as I’ll discuss in the weeks to come, but they all managed to be relatively safe box-office bets until the series began to run out of steam in the early 1990s. For a while, though, Friday the 13th was a reliable and bankable commodity at the box office, and that all started with the original slasher back in 1980.

Next Friday/Friday After Next

Next Friday (2000) / Friday After Next (2003)

Dir. Steve Carr / Marcus Raboy

Written by: Ice Cube

Starring: Ice Cube, Mike Epps, DC Curry, John Witherspoon

 

I decided, for the sake of brevity and completion, to include both Friday sequels in this post, rather than doing a full write up for Friday After Next and then coming back to Next Friday sometime next year when I get to its place in the alphabet. The movies are fairly similar, featuring some familiar faces from the original, as well as a few new characters, and I honestly don’t know that I would have had enough to write about each movie individually to warrant full posts on them. Both of these sequels have their moments, but neither can hold a candle to the original movie, and I don’t have a particular nostalgic attraction to either of them, despite having seen them both in the movie theater and having watched them each multiple times. I came to own the Friday sequels because it was less expensive for me to purchase a three-disc-set with all of the movies rather than buying Friday by itself. Since I now own the movies, I’ve watched them both, but I don’t return to either one with any regularity. The original Friday is a mainstay in my comedy rotation, but neither of its sequels have the comedic consistency and satisfaction to keep me coming back very often.

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Next Friday sees Craig (Ice Cube), still unemployed, moving in with his Uncle Elroy (Curry) and cousin Day Day (Epps) in the suburbs after Deebo (Tiny Lister), the villain from the original film, breaks out of prison swearing revenge on Craig for getting the better of him in the previous film’s climactic fight. Though he leaves the hood, Craig’s problems seem to follow him, as he and Day Day run afoul of the Joker brothers, a family of Mexican gangsters who are Day Day’s neighbors. Meanwhile, Craig finds out that Day Day and Elroy’s million-dollar home, bought with their lottery winnings, is going to be sold at auction if the family can’t come up with money that they owe in back taxes. The cousins devise a plan to rob the Jokers, but things quickly go south, and soon the whole family, including Craig’s dad, Willie (Witherspoon), are involved in the heist. Unbeknownst to him, however, Willie has delivered a secret package to the suburbs, as Deebo has stowed away in the back of his dog catcher’s truck, hoping that Willie will deliver him to Craig so that he can finally get his revenge.

In Friday After Next, Craig and Day Day, along with the rest of their family are back in the hood, and getting ready to celebrate Christmas. The film opens with Craig and Day Day’s apartment being burglarized by a robber dressed like Santa Claus who steals all of their rent money. The movie primarily takes place in a strip mall where the cousins have gotten temporary jobs as security guards and where Willie and Elroy have opened up a barbeque restaurant. While Craig and Day Day patrol the strip mall, hoping to earn enough money to replace their stolen rent, they encounter a whole new cast of characters. However, their tenure as security guards doesn’t last long as they’re run off the job by some tough guys whose grandmothers Day Day kicked out of the strip mall for loitering. When they lose their jobs, the cousins decide to throw a rent party and their family, as well as all of the oddballs from the strip mall, attend, helping them raise enough money to pay the rent. In the end, the cousins are also able to catch the robber, reclaiming their Christmas presents and their money, and leaving him in his Santa suit, gagged and bound to a chimney.

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The sequels are largely very similar to Friday, with all three films revolving around Craig’s need to acquire some small sum of money, getting dragged into schemes by his friends and family, and hooking up with a beautiful girl by the end of the movie. All three films also feature deep and talented casts of comic actors, both up-and-coming and established, but the biggest thing that the sequels lack in comparison to the original movie is the presence of Chris Tucker. Tucker didn’t sign on for the Friday sequels, so his character, Smokey, was conveniently sent off to rehab and Epps’s Day Day stepped into the role of Craig’s friend and sidekick in Next Friday. Tucker was the break out comedic star of Friday, and, as I wrote last week, he was the engine largely driving that film’s humor. Day Day is a funny character, and he certainly has scenes in both films that generate some good laughs, but Smokey was iconic, and the sequels suffer heavily without Tucker’s energy. Epps has a much more laconic comedic style and the dynamic between he and Ice Cube simply doesn’t carry the same charge that Tucker and Cube developed in the first movie. Though the Friday franchise turned Ice Cube into a media mogul, he never really developed much chemistry or timing as a comedic actor. He maintains a laid back delivery throughout, playing the straight man, but Epps doesn’t turn in an energetic enough performance to recreate the other half of the buddy dynamic successfully. The two actors both manage to have memorable scenes here and there throughout the sequels, but without Tucker’s humor tying the films together, the Friday sequels never become more than the sum of their parts, and often seem directionless, with the plots meandering from one contrived point to another.

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This is particularly apparent in Next Friday, as the film is largely built around the relationship between Craig and Day Day and eschews some of the ensemble casting that was so successful in the original film. With Cube and Epps still feeling out their comedic partnership, Curry, Witherspoon, and others are asked to provide the lion’s share of the laughs, but they aren’t given nearly enough screen time to do so. Another problem is that most of the new characters who are introduced in the supporting cast are too one-note, and often they’re little more than racist caricatures. While no one would accuse Friday of being the most intellectually stimulating film ever made, Next Friday too often goes for low-hanging fruit, settling for offensive or tasteless jokes rather than trafficking in the well-established observational comedy style of the original movie. While Friday felt like a genuine slice of life, an opportunity to take a brief glimpse into one day in Craig’s life, Next Friday feels like a hastily penned series of comedy sketches, with Craig and Day Day being shoehorned into one implausible and unfunny scenario after another. The movie has a handful of moments, and a few lines here and there that for some reason are ingrained in my memory, such as Day Day trying to pass of his obviously small rims as 20s early in the film, but on the whole, I think that Next Friday is the weakest movie in the franchise. It fails to integrate its new characters into the universe gracefully or to continue the successful formula of the original, taking instead a more cartoonish approach to comedy.

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Luckily, in Friday After Next, it seems that the creative team learned a few lessons from the failures of Next Friday and opted to steer the franchise back in a more familiar direction. The film returns the family dynamic that was missing from Next Friday (despite featuring more members of Craig’s extended family) by beefing up Witherspoon’s role, and by reintroducing the character of Craig’s mother, played again by Anna Maria Horsford. The strip mall also functions in a similar way to the block on Friday, giving the film a much more observational feel. Again, the audience is able to be a fly on the wall as Craig lives through another crazy Friday, and gets to meet a new set of eccentric characters in the process. Katt Williams headlines the supporting cast, playing a pimp named Magic Mike who is trying his hand at opening up a retail clothing store. Terry Crews is also a highlight, as he almost always is. Crews’s character, Damion, has recently been released from prison, where he picked up a taste for forced sodomy, and he and Williams share one of the funnier scenes late in the movie. Ice Cube and Epps seem to be more comfortable in their onscreen chemistry, and whether that’s the result of them having more experience working across from one another or from having a stronger ensemble cast to take some of the comedic burden off of their shoulders, the movie is better off for it. Friday After Next leans heavily on physical comedy, more so than even its predecessor, and it sometimes feels outdated and a bit offensive, but not nearly as much so as Next Friday. The movie largely feels like a Christmas-themed rehash of the original, and though it certainly doesn’t stack up favorably when compared to Friday, it’s a step in the right direction after Next Friday’s wrong turn.

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Overall, I doubt that I’ll be checking out Next Friday anytime soon, but there’s a chance that I decide to dust off Friday After Next sometime later this year when I want to get in the holiday spirit. While it won’t ever be a go-to movie for me like Friday, the third installment in the trilogy is a serviceable enough studio comedy. Its laughs are mostly cheap, but at least they’re there, which is often more than I can say for Next Friday, which almost entirely fails to move the needle on the humor scale. The franchise probably shouldn’t have continued without Tucker, but it did move on without him, and after a bit of fumbling in its second installment, Ice Cube and the cast manage to nearly stick the landing with the current final installment.

There is a fourth Friday film currently in the works, with Tucker’s involvement reportedly not totally ruled out at this point, and I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t going to go see it, whether or not he ends up reprising his role as Smokey. I love the original movie so much that I’m willing to at least extend the benefit of the doubt to future installments of the franchise. If it ends up being made, the upcoming sequel might well end up being terrible, but even if it is, my fervor for the original won’t be quieted anytime soon. When it’s a Friday, and I ain’t got no job, and I ain’t got shit to do, I’ll likely just opt to pop in the original Friday, but having the option to watch Friday After Next once in a while isn’t bad, either.

Friday

Friday (1995)

Dir. F Gary Gray

Written by: Ice Cube and DJ Pooh

Starring: Ice Cube, Chris Tucker, Tiny Lister, John Witherspoon

 

Friday is one of those seminal comedies for me that I grew up watching, first on television in my parents’ home, then at sleepovers at friends’ houses, and finally into adulthood anytime I wanted to just throw on a funny movie and pay sparing attention to it while I have other tasks to accomplish. I’ve got every line of the movie memorized, and I’ve seen it enough times that I could probably replay its images perfectly on the back of my eyelids in my sleep. Somehow, though I know when my favorite lines and scenes will arrive, the movie never fails to disappoint me and it never gets old. It has the familiarity and comfort of an old sweater, enveloping and warming me with its humor, and making me feel like I’ve arrived in a place of serenity. Friday is one of my favorite chill-out movies, and I can’t be the only person who feels that way, because the movie has been an enduring success, helping to legitimize Ice Cube’s nascent film career, and preceding a pair of sequels. It’s another movie that I like to watch because it’s just fun and familiar and it takes me back to a place where I was just discovering a love of movies and humor, and I enjoy the nostalgic aspect of it.

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The titular Friday refers to a day that Craig (Ice Cube) wakes up with no job and nothing to do except hang out on the front porch with his best friend Smokey (Tucker) and preside over the comings and goings of their block in Watts. Craig and Smokey spend the day getting high and cutting up on their neighbors while trying to avoid run-ins with neighborhood bully, Deebo (Lister), and Big Worm (Faizon Love), a drug dealer whom Smokey owes $200. The friends try to devise schemes to get Big Worm’s money, but when Craig’s family is unwilling to lend him any money, and Smokey continues to smoke all of his weed rather than sell it, they have to take desperate measures to try to get the money, with Smokey attempting to steal it from a sleeping Deebo. When Smokey is unsuccessful, he and Craig are forced to face the music, and Big Worm tries to shoot them in a drive by. While they successfully evade the gunfire, Craig finds himself walking right into a showdown with Deebo when he tries to defend his crush, Debbie (Nia Long), from Deebo’s attacks. The two fight in the street and though Deebo gets the better of Craig initially, Craig takes his beating and comes back at Deebo with a brick, knocking him the fuck out. In the end, Craig becomes a neighborhood hero for standing up to Deebo, manages to get the girl, and starts off his first weekend of unemployment on a high note.

One of the best, and most appealing, aspects of Friday to me is that the movie not only has great performances from Ice Cube and Chris Tucker in the lead roles, it also features a who’s who of prominent comedians in supporting roles. Craig and Smokey’s neighborhood is full of colorful characters and even the smallest roles are memorable thanks to the excellent and diverse comedic styles of the movie’s cast. Friday isn’t really an ensemble comedy, but Craig and Smokey almost fulfill the role of a Greek chorus, sitting on Craig’s porch and observing, and commenting on, their weird neighbors and family. John Witherspoon is a standout as Craig’s cantankerous father, a dog catcher who hates dogs and who disparages Craig for his joblessness and lackadaisical attitude. The veteran character actor is adept at physical comedy and provides many of the film’s memorable zingers and catch phrases, with his comedic energy contrasting with straight man Ice Cube’s laconic line delivery. Anna Maria Horsford matches Witherspoon’s performance, playing Craig’s mother as a strong, no-nonsense woman who also doesn’t shy away from the opportunity to crack jokes at her son’s expense. Bernie Mac and Ronn Riser are both funny in small appearances, as a preacher and as Craig’s fastidious, wealthy neighbor, Stanley, respectively. Cube’s co-writer, DJ Pooh, is memorable as Red, the sad-sack loser who Deebo repeatedly victimizes, and Lister is a proper villain, monstrous and physical. This depth and breadth in the cast lends Friday a broad, and unique, comedic sensibility, one that would come to be emulated by the film’s own sequels, and by mainstream stoner comedies throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. The brief, scene-stealing appearances by now-famous comedians also gives Friday a high degree of rewatchability, because there are so many absurdly funny moments to relish in.

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Of course, though, a buddy comedy like Friday is only as successful as its primary pairing, and Ice Cube and Chris Tucker make for a classic comedic duo. Cube lends the movie serious street cred with his cool, laid back line delivery, and thousand yard stare, while Tucker keeps the comedic energy sky high. The two actors are perfect foils for one another, and the movie wouldn’t work well without their performances at the core. Although Friday is supposed to be Craig’s story, Smokey is the breakout character, and Tucker’s manic energy gives the movie its life force. Tucker propels the story forward, with the movie often taking divergences from the narrative prompted by Smokey’s stories, or following Smokey into situations that Craig is absent from. Friday was an important movie for pushing both Cube and Tucker into mainstream movie stardom, and there’s little arguing that Cube has had the more successful career to date, but Tucker steals Friday in a way that makes one think the movie was written and conceived of as a vehicle to launch his career, specifically. He chews the scenery, mouth running a mile a minute, and steals every scene that he’s featured in, supplying the film’s most memorable moments and lines. I think that Tucker’s Smokey does need Cube’s Craig as a foil, but not nearly as much as Friday the movie depends on Tucker to provide the laughs that Cube isn’t fully able to. Ice Cube is a pretty fine actor, but he’s always playing some version of his own star persona, whereas Tucker’s star persona has largely become informed by his signature performance as Smokey. As the sequels would come to prove, without Tucker’s energy, the Friday formula doesn’t work nearly as well.

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In a lot of ways, Friday and its comedy contemporaries laid out the blueprint for a specifically 1990s style of comedy. As hip hop was emerging as a dominant force in mainstream music and pop culture, Hollywood responded by greenlighting dramas and comedies that reflected a changing demographic and cultural landscape. In this film, Ice Cube found himself at the intersection of gangsta rap and mainstream film comedy, a move that would foretell his eventual status as a media mogul, headlining multiple huge film comedy franchises. Though Cube has sometimes become a punchline for appearing in Disney films and other family-oriented entertainment later in his career, there’s no denying the credibility and originality of Friday. It opened the doors for a new type of entertainment, and for other rappers to try their hands at acting and headlining movie franchises. The film’s run-away success dovetailed with a sea change in popular entertainment, and its sense of humor helped develop a new trope in comedy. I still love returning to this classic just as much as I did when I was a young person, and I probably will be watching Friday when I want a laugh and a pick-me-up for years to come.

Freddy Got Fingered

Freddy Got Fingered (2001)

Dir. Tom Green

Written by: Tom Green & Derek Harvie

Starring: Tom Green, Rip Torn, Marisa Coughlin

 

When I think back to the late 1990s, one of the strangest pop-cultural phenomena to me is the brief stint of massive popularity that Canadian shock comedian Tom Green enjoyed at that time. Green rose from obscurity in America in 1999 when MTV began airing The Tom Green Show, a continuation of a sketch/alternative comedy show that he had been hosting on Canadian public access television for five years. The show only continued production in America for about a year, ending its brief run due to Green’s diagnosis with testicular cancer, and culminating with a one-hour special in which Green and his family, who were the frequent targets of his anarchic pranks on the show, detail their reactions to, and attempts to cope with, the diagnosis. Despite its brief run, the show continued airing in syndication and Green continued to enjoy a modicum of celebrity into the early 2000s, including a short marriage to Drew Barrymore, a handful of post-cancer specials on MTV, and the release of Freddy Got Fingered, Green’s attempt at turning the madcap energy of his sketch show into a narrative feature film. Though he’s continued producing an internet show and making other small media appearances, Freddy Got Fingered, which garnered a cult following on DVD despite its box office failure and critical lambasting, remains Green’s most enduring work.

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The movie, which echoes Green’s own relationship with his parents and struggle to break into the TV business, casts him as Gord, a 28-year-old slacker who still lives at home with his parents, Jim (Torn) and Julie (Julie Hagerty). The movie opens with Gord determined to leave their home in Oregon to chase his dream of being a successful cartoonist in Los Angeles. Gord arrives in L.A. and tracks down the head of an animation studio, Dave Davidson (Anthony Michael Hall), who rejects Gord’s drawings for their ridiculous premise, but tells him that he has skills as an illustrator. Gord returns home after being rejected, where his father belittles his attempts to chase his dreams and constantly harangues him to get a job. By chance, Gord meets a nurse, Betty (Coughlin), who is in a wheel chair, and who hopes to one day create a rocket-powered chair to help her overcome her limitations and achieve her dream of going fast, but their relationship starts to fall apart as the tensions between Gord and his father start to wear on all aspects of his life. After tearing his family apart by falsely accusing his father of molesting his little brother, Freddy (Eddie Kaye Thomas), Gord gives up on his dreams of becoming a cartoonist. He takes a job at a sandwich shop where he eventually sees a news report on Betty’s success building her rocket chair, and he is inspired to take up his pencil again and he returns to Hollywood to pitch a new idea to Davidson, a cartoon based on his relationship with his father. Davidson immediately picks up the cartoon and pays Gord a $1,000,000 advance, most of which he uses to relocate his family’s home to Pakistan, where he and his father are abducted and held as hostages, causing an international affair. The film ends with Gord and Jim’s safe return to the United States, where Gord’s cartoon has become a hit.

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I summarized the entirety of Freddy Got Fingered’s plot as succinctly as I could, while leaving out some of the more bizarre and ancillary diversions, just to highlight the utter inanity of this movie. Freddy Got Fingered only follows the rules of narrative continuity in the most minimally applicable ways, basically functioning as one long, free-flowing non-sequitur. It’s a hallucinatory, challenging experience to watch, and I, personally, find it basically impossible to appreciate for any real “comedic” merit. Though I was a pretty big fan of The Tom Green Show on MTV, by the time Freddy Got Fingered came out, I had already moved on from Green’s style of provocative, gross out, anti-comedy. I know I saw the movie in the theater with my friends, but even at 16, I wasn’t a fan of Freddy Got Fingered. I found it to be excessive, gross, and unnecessary, and my feelings really haven’t changed very much after a decade and a half. I know that there has been a critical reevaluation of the film in the last few years, with several prominent critics categorizing the film as an interesting work of experimental cinema and performance art, and I think that there are likely grounds to examine the film in such a light, but I still have difficulty engaging with the movie in any way that doesn’t lead to frustration and slight disgust. Green insists on pushing the envelope throughout the film, daring his audience to laugh along with him as he lampoons all societal conventions, but anytime I watch Freddy Got Fingered, I just can’t find anything humorous about it. I’m not a prude, but Green’s attempts to shock throughout the movie, particularly his repeated insistence on showing graphic beastiality, whether real or simulated, are beyond the pale for me as a viewer. Rather than finding it funny, much of the film’s attempts at humor just strike me as gratuitous and sadly sophomoric. Of course, this is Green’s established brand, but having to endure his hijinks for a full 90-minute runtime is asking a lot of any viewers who aren’t fully on board with the act. I suppose that I can applaud Green for taking $15,000,000 from a huge movie studio and turning it into an aggressively unmarketable experimental “comedy,” perhaps even a satire on the tired formula of the gross-out studio comedy, but I can’t really forgive him for making a movie that isn’t even a touch funny or artful.

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The DVD copy of Freddy Got Fingered that I have isn’t even mine, really. It got mixed in with my things when a roommate of mine moved out of our shared house about seven or eight years ago, and though I really don’t enjoy the movie, I’ve actually watched it a few times in the past several years in light of the aforementioned pieces written about it. I can absolutely see how the film can be seen as an influential piece of the puzzle for a neo-surrealist branch of comedy that has flourished, particularly on television, in the 21st century. Freddy Got Fingered shares a challenging approach to comedy that is mirrored in several notable and beloved comedy shows such as Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, Squidbillies, and other shows from the Adult Swim lineup. Its plot, its resistance to classical rules of storytelling, and insistence on incorporating non-narrative diversions into its structure for questionably comic value are all mirrored in one of my favorite recent(ish) comedies, Hot Rod. This movie, starring Andy Samberg as a wannabe stuntman who tries to raise money to save the life of his dying stepfather so that he can best him in a fight, was absolutely influenced by Green’s brand of outrageous comedy. The biggest difference between the two, I think, is that Samberg is able to craft a likable and genuinely relatable character in his lovable loser, while Green’s Gord is simply too weird and too off-putting to engage any real sympathy or audience identification. I will allow that that may be exactly the point, but I just find Green’s performance in Freddy Got Fingered to be too grating, and I can’t enjoy the movie as a result.

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I really don’t like writing about movies that I dislike. I think that it’s much more difficult to find something of worth to say about a piece of art that I actively don’t like than it is to find adequate praise for something I find exceptional, but I still try to find silver linings in the movies that I’ve outgrown, or that I never liked in the first place that somehow ended up sticking around my collection. I try to take advantage of the opportunity of watching these movies freshly, and critically, to find some new appreciation for or understanding of them, but I really can’t say that I’m going to be looking at Freddy Got Fingered in a new light, or at all, in the future. I can understand what people might see in it, and I can even grant that it has some notoriety or import in its genre that should be respected, but I just don’t find it funny or satisfying in any way. It’s not the worst movie in history, as some might have speculated at its release, but I really don’t think that it has aged well, particularly in comparison to more modern surrealist comedies. Green’s act seems more stale and antiquated to me than provocative or darkly funny. If the movie works as fodder for a think piece, it doesn’t work for me as an actual viewing experience, and if it doesn’t make me laugh, I don’t really care that it represents an admirable dedication to a particular brand of meta-comedy.

 

Following

Following (1998)

Dir. Christopher Nolan

Written by: Christopher Nolan

Starring: Jeremy Theobald, Alex Haw, Lucy Russell

 

I’m always a fan of going back to a director’s debut film, or at least their very early work, to see how many of their directorial traits and tics are on display from the inception of their film career. Even if I’m not a huge fan of a filmmaker’s body of work, I think that it’s a neat exercise to go back and explore some of their early films just to get a sense of how they’ve developed as an artist, and maybe why I never developed an affinity for their work in the first place. Christopher Nolan is one such filmmaker, for whom the bloom came off the rose with me relatively quickly. Although I do really enjoy a handful of his films, overall I’ve never really understood what all the hype was about. I feel that Nolan’s early work is still his best, with Memento certainly standing out as my favorite film of his, and that his output has suffered greatly from the popularity and public intrigue he gained after filming the massively popular Dark Knight trilogy. As such, I enjoyed going back to Following to remember the qualities that I really enjoyed in Nolan’s work before his films became maximalist puzzles. I appreciate the miniscule scope that he works on in his debut, and the way that this cloistered aesthetic helps to build a sense of tension and anticipation. Though it doesn’t always deliver in the way that Nolan’s next couple of films do, Following is, nonetheless, a well-crafted and original neo-noir thriller, and an obvious indication that Nolan would go on to perfect some of the techniques he tries out in this small film.

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Following tells the story of a young aspiring writer (Theobald) who decides that he will begin following strangers throughout London in order to gain insight into their daily lives and to gain inspiration for his stories. He establishes rules for himself to minimize his risk of being caught, and, likely, to assuage his own fears of his latent voyeurism, but he quickly starts to break these important rules. The first rule that he breaks is that he begins to follow a particular man, Cobb (Haw), for several days in a row, which leads to Cobb cornering him and demanding to know why he is being followed. After a brief discussion, Cobb reveals to the young man, who tells him his name is “Bill,” that he is a burglar, and he invites Bill to join him in breaking into a home. Cobb rarely takes anything of value, instead preferring to use his burglary as a way to insert himself into his victims’ lives, shaking up their sense of normalcy and security. This approach to breaking and entering speaks to Bill’s desire to peep into other people’s lives, and he quickly takes to the job, forming a sort of partnership with Cobb. Bill quickly gets in over his head, becoming involved with a woman (Russell) whose apartment he and Cobb have burgled, and offering to steal some photos that a gangster is using to blackmail her. However, in this duplicitous world, no one is who they seem to be, and Bill begins to realize that he’s a pawn being used in a larger scheme.

Narratively, Nolan does a great deal with a fairly straightforward premise. He shows an innate understanding of how to create tension and suspense by harnessing a particular visual aesthetic, filming his subjects in a near documentary style, utilizing a lot of handheld shots and close up framings. Following is proof that necessity is the mother of invention, as Nolan shows great creativity and resourcefulness in achieving a coherent vision despite his film’s paltry $6,000 budget. He uses the grainy look of 16mm film stock to his advantage, evoking a sort of realism and heightening the film’s sense of place by giving it the look of a newsreel. Shooting on location also serves to increase this verisimilitude, with the apartments that Cobb burgles feeling like real, lived-in spaces, increasing the queasy feeling of violation that the film induces. It’s truly impressive how affective Following is, with its ripped-from-the-headlines style inducing major paranoia, while the pleasures that Cobb gets from rifling through his victims’ possessions is truly perverse and unsettling. Nolan achieves all of this while exhibiting an extreme and necessary minimalism in his shooting style, choosing to capture these sick acts simply, allowing the mundane to become foreign and alarming before the audience’s eyes.

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The sense of disorientation and unease is furthered by Nolan’s now familiar trope of telling his story out of order. The narrative jumps around, beginning at the end as Bill is recounting his story to a police officer, hoping to absolve himself of a murder. Like Memento after it, Nolan uses a nonlinear structure in Following to represent the main character’s state of mental unrest, but unlike that later film, which unfolds in reverse, Following presents its story in a jumbled mix of cut scenes, with past, present, and future colliding haphazardly. This structure is representative of Bill’s own inability to process and make sense of the double cross that has been played on him by Cobb and the woman whose apartment they burgle; the audience is witnessing his attempt to shuffle through the events of the previous few days, trying to find the reason that he was chosen as a patsy. Nolan’s use of nonlinear narrative structure would become more nuanced and layered as his career would continue, but it is nonetheless incredibly effective in its nascent form in Following. The randomness of the story’s unfolding keeps the audience lurching and confused, requiring close attention to detail until all of the film’s principals have been introduced, and the broader strokes of the timeline have been established. Though the film does settle into a bit of rhythm by its midpoint, its twist ending is still a sharp left turn that makes perfect sense in retrospect, but is nearly impossible to really see coming. I normally hate films that incorporate a hard twist in their final act, because it is so rarely achieved gracefully in the context of the narrative, but rather than depending on its shocking ending, Following incorporates the ending into the larger disorienting context of the narrative, providing one last, satisfying, gut punch to the audience’s sense of narrative surety.

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What I think I appreciate about watching Following after having seen Nolan’s career unfold in the ensuing 20 years, is the surehandedness with which he wields his nonlinear structure to bolster the effects of his simple narrative. As his career continues and his films become more complex and maximalist, I’ve started to feel that his narrative twists and turns have become more gimmicky and less in service to constructing a compelling narrative. In his earlier pictures, up to and including The Prestige, it felt to me that Nolan’s use of novel storytelling techniques was in service to constructing a larger structure. It was a great suture of form and content, with the storytelling devices informing the overall narrative and vice versa. Unfortunately, over the last decade, I feel like Nolan has been falling into a trap that seems to befall many artists who become overly associated with a particular style. His films have become less formally innovative while relying on convenient “twists” or storytelling peculiarities, such as concurrent narrative threads, or the nesting doll structure of Inception, to increasingly disappointing results. I feel that Nolan has started making films with a “gotcha” premise or a superficially confusing structure, which lend his newer films being thought of as “smarter” than his earlier output. I don’t think that movies like Inception or Interstellar are bad, but I think that their cinematic importance has been overrated, while his taut, more narratively interesting earlier films like Following aren’t nearly as celebrated.

I imagine if I had seen Following when it was released in the late 1990s, I wouldn’t have at all predicted that Christopher Nolan would become one of the most successful and critically acclaimed filmmakers of his time. The debut certainly points to his ability to craft a compelling story and capture memorable visuals, but it really doesn’t indicate the rapid and tremendous rise to fame that Nolan would soon embark on. Even after seeing Memento, which I loved at the time and, disappointingly, won’t be writing about for this project, I would have assumed that Nolan would go on to become a respected indie auteur rather than the creative mind behind some of the 21st century’s biggest blockbusters. However, that’s exactly what Nolan has become, for better or for worse, so going back to watch a tiny movie like Following feels highly anachronistic. There are definitely seeds of Nolan’s style at work in the movie, but it feels divorced from nearly everything that he has made since taking on the Batman license. Nolan’s career path has pushed him to making bigger and more ambitious films than Following or Memento, but I’d be very interested in seeing him return to his gritty roots and strip away some of the high production gloss that he’s enjoyed for his most recent projects. Clearly, he has an affinity for pulp, so a return to the noir genre would be an unsurprising and welcome turn for his career, in my opinion. I maintain a respect for and an understanding of the craft that Nolan brings to his films, but they’ve rarely connected with me in meaningful ways, and I think another hardboiled narrative that drips grit and realism like Following might be the thing that I need to bring me back into the fold.

 

Five Deadly Venoms

Five Deadly Venoms (1978)

Dir. Chang Cheh

Written by: Chang Cheh, Kuang Ni

Starring: Sheng Chiang, Chien Sun, Phillip Chung-Fung Kwok, Meng Lo, Pai Wei, Feng Lu

 

Five Deadly Venoms is a classic of grindhouse cinema, one of the most memorable and celebrated martial arts films of the late 1970s, and one of the most seen classic kung fu films in the West. The movie comes relatively late into the body of work of the prolific and respected Hong Kong filmmaker, Chang Cheh, who had cut his teeth in the 1960s making popular Wuxia films before transitioning to the kung fu genre. Five Deadly Venoms shows the influence of the swords and spectacle aesthetic of the Wuxia tradition, and is an unusual blend of the two styles, featuring the period setting and unattainable physical feats of the Wuxia, as well as some gritty hand-to-hand combat set pieces. It features several great martial artists showcasing different styles of kung fu, as the five venoms all specialize in a different variant based on the attacking style of an animal. Plus it has an unusual mystery structure, making its plot a bit more engaging than the typical derivative kung fu films of the time. Taking these elements into consideration, it isn’t surprising that Five Deadly Venoms has risen above the pack of martial arts films of its time to become a midnight movie staple.

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The film opens with aging Master Yuan (Feng Ku) explaining to his final pupil, Yang Tieh (Sheng), that he fears that the other pupils he taught in the past may have begun using the skills he taught them for evil rather than good. Yuan took on five pupils in his younger days and he taught each of them a specific, and devastating, style of kung fu. Yuan asks Tieh, who he was taught a hybrid of all five styles, to seek out the five masked pupils – Centipede (Feng), Snake (Chi), Scorpion (Chien), Lizard (Kwok), and Toad (Pai) – and to kill any who are using his teachings for the purposes of evil. Yuan gives Tieh a tip that the poison clan, as his former pupils are referred to, may be plotting a robbery and Tieh tracks them to the town where their target lives. Tieh has a difficult time identifying the venoms, as their identities are a closely guarded secret, but eventually they all come to the surface during a murder investigation. Tieh teams up with Lizard, who is now a police officer, and Toad, to try to take down Centipede and Snake, who have murdered an entire family in their search for a rumored treasure, but the identity of Scorpion remains a mystery until the very end.

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That rudimentary plot synopsis doesn’t do justice to the fun mystery that’s at the core of Five Deadly Venoms. At least in my experience, its plot structure is fairly unique among the kung fu films of its time period. I can remember my first time watching the movie, thinking that it was actually a bit confusing, with a decent-at-best English language dub and a subpar image transfer making it difficult to pick up on some characters’ identities and some of the more nuanced plot points. Mistaken and double identities abound, with one character not revealing his true nature until immediately before the film’s climactic battle. The venoms are all intriguing characters, and their variated kung fu styles keep the action fresh and exciting throughout the film. In many kung fu films of the time, the plot was a thin construct only used to propel the action from one set piece to another, but in Five Deadly Venoms, action often takes a backseat to intrigue, as there is genuine mystery about the identity of several of the venoms, and as to the motivations that each character has regarding the hidden treasure that Centipede and Snake have killed to find. This deeper plot structure also helps to heighten character identification, and the scenes that feature the once-invulnerable Toad broken and tortured are genuinely emotionally moving, something that more run of the mill kung fu films can rarely claim. The richness of the plot and the characters makes Five Deadly Venoms a satisfying rewatch, and it’s likely the reason that I’ve returned to this film much more frequently than the other martial arts classics in my collection.

The other reason that I might return to Five Deadly Venoms more readily than the Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan movies in my collection is that it provides the perfect combination of action, campiness, and tradition that I learned to embrace when I was a teenager starting to discover Hong Kong martial arts films. I’ve written before about my experience raiding my friend’s father’s VHS collection and watching 1970s and 1980s kung fu and action movies that he had taped off of HBO when I would stay at their house. The movies that I discovered there were often the stereotypically campy kung fu classics, complete with incomplete or inaccurate English dubbing, bad editing, and grainy image quality. As such, I came to love these qualities about this subgenre of action films. I sought out movies that would check off these boxes, further coming to love the B-movie quality of the genre when I saw the way that Quentin Tarantino lovingly spun those seeming shortcomings into a perfect homage in Kill Bill. I started to see the cinematic interconnections in kung fu movies, Westerns, pulp detective movies and novels, and, to a lesser extent, comics. I started becoming aware of a “high culture”/”low culture” dichotomy and realizing that I had little interest in separating types of art from one another, as I realized that works of art, by nature, form a mesh that informs one another, as well as informing the tastes and viewing patterns of fans. I enjoyed Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but its aspirational “artfulness” (and it is a beautiful, moving, and artful film) didn’t speak to me in the same way that the rawness of movies like Five Deadly Venoms did.

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After the first couple of years of college, Five Deadly Venoms, along with the rest of the kung fu films in my collection, found itself seemingly permanently anchored to its place on the shelf. My last couple of years of college were dominated by Westerns and arthouse cinema, and my free time to watch movies for fun was greatly diminished. After dropping out of graduate school, I felt a need to disengage with movies almost entirely, experiencing an overload and a burn out that was overwhelming. After a year or two of really not enjoying watching movies, and going out of my way to find excuses not to see the newest releases or rewatch old favorites, I started allowing myself some indulgences. Five Deadly Venoms was one of the first of these forays back into really watching movies for pleasure that I can distinctly remember. One morning in early 2010, some 18 months after I had left graduate school and probably nearly a year after a DUI car crash that derailed my sense of self for several years, I found myself alone in my house, listening to one of my favorite albums, the undeniable debut album by the Wu-Tang Clan, Enter the Wu-Tang. I listened to the album a lot back then, and I still do, but for some reason on that morning, upon hearing the opening sample to “Da Mystery of Chessboxing,” which is partially culled from Five Deadly Venoms, I felt compelled to stop the music and dig up my old DVD copy of the movie and pop it in. I sat down on the floor of my room and watched it from beginning to end, remembering just how fun it could be to get lost in a great story for a couple of hours. It was a great experience and I can remember feeling a bit lighter after having watched a movie that I really enjoyed.

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I’ve since watched Five Deadly Venoms a few times, and it doesn’t disappoint. Martial arts movies are a frequent pick-me-up for me, when I want to elevate my mood before heading to work for the evening, or when I want to totally push any thoughts of responsibility out of my head for a while. I stream a lot of stuff, but Five Deadly Venoms is the DVD most likely to come off of my shelf for a rewatch. Unlike the rest of the low quality bootlegs that comprise a large portion of my kung fu collection, I don’t mind the grainy textures and variant sound quality, which only seem to be exacerbated by modern televisions. There’s something about that quality and this movie that seems fitting and even charming. It probably isn’t my favorite kung fu movie, but it is emblematic of a certain type of kung fu movie, and reminiscent of a time in my life when I needed to be reminded that the opportunity to watch a good movie is something of value, to be enjoyed and savored. I think that more and more it’s become difficult for people to really unplug, and that being too busy to enjoy a decent quality of life has become the norm for so many people I know, and that isn’t a healthy way of life. One of the things that I’ve most valued about working on this project is that it has forced me to find the time to sit down and really watch and enjoy at least one movie each week. Even though I look at keeping my posts updated regularly as important work, I find it rewarding, and that satisfaction, along with an honest desire to approach all of these movies with an air of critical curiosity, has kept me working through. Five Deadly Venoms is, objectively, not the best movie that I’ve written about for this project, but it is one of the most fun, and often movies that are just plain fun are the ones most worth watching.  

Fists of Fury (The Big Boss)

Fists of Fury AKA The Big Boss (1971)

Dir. Lo Wei

Written by: Lo Wei, Bruce Lee

Starring: Bruce Lee, Maria Yi, James Tien

 

Bruce Lee’s first major film, The Big Boss (mistakenly released in America as Fists of Fury), is far from the best showcase of Lee’s star power and his physical prowess, but it does hint at some of the exciting things to come. The film was initially written as a vehicle for James Tien, but when a change in director was made, Lee was given the role of the main character, Cheng, and the film went on to become a massive success, turning Lee into the most famous martial artist in Asia. The Big Boss was the first step in relaunching Lee’s career in Hong Kong, as he had left America following the cancellation of the cult TV show Green Hornet, on which he played the sidekick, Cato. It was the first in a pair of films Lee would star in, and serve as the driving creative force behind, for upstart film studio Golden Harvest. Lee’s presence helped to give the new production studio credibility, while Golden Harvest offered Lee the creative control that he was unable to achieve while working in Hollywood. The Big Boss would be the worse of the two films that Lee would complete for Golden Harvest, but the partnership helped to break him into the Hong Kong cinema world in a big way. However, Lee’s earliest Hong Kong films only scratch the surface of the potential that he would later fulfill as an action star when given a proper budget and the opportunity to work with a more competent film crew.

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In the film, Lee plays Cheng Chao-an, who leaves mainland China to live with his cousin, Hsu Chien (Tien) in Thailand. Hsu Chien has secured Cheng a job working with the rest of his family at an ice factory, but when Cheng starts working at the factory, he realizes that the boss is using the ice blocks to smuggle drugs. Shortly after this discovery, Cheng’s cousins begin disappearing one by one, which leads Cheng and the rest of the workers at the factory to go on strike, demanding to know the whereabouts of Hsu Chien and the rest of their coworkers. When the boss’s thugs try to break up the strike, Cheng jumps into the fray to defend his friends, breaking a vow made to his mother before leaving China that he would not get into any fights or trouble in Thailand. In an effort to reconcile with his workers, the big boss makes Cheng the factory foreman, but this only leads to him getting closer to discovering the true nature of the factory’s business and putting him into direct conflict with the big boss and his cronies.

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The Big Boss isn’t a bad movie, but, as I alluded to, it definitely suffers from low production values and a lack of focus. It is obvious that the film had a somewhat fraught production. On-set injuries, poor shooting conditions, a revolving door of crew members, including the director, and, at times, disagreements between Lee and Wei on the vision of the film all added up to make the end result a bit of a mess. The film’s first half gets started much too slowly, with the focus primarily on Hsu Chien rather than Cheng, perhaps a holdover from the original intention for the film to be a vehicle to escalate Tien’s existing popularity in Hong Kong. Using the narrative excuse that Cheng promised his mother that he would avoid violence, Lee’s character is largely brushed to the side while Tien gets all of the fighting scenes. While Tien grabs the spotlight, Lee plays out a mildly incestuous and totally unnecessary romantic hero side plot with his only female cousin, Chiao Mei (Yi). When Cheng finally breaks his vow to his mother and Lee gets to showcase some of his fighting skills, it’s very obvious that he is a much better martial artist than Tien, and it’s hard for me to accept not having enjoyed the clinic that Lee puts on in the film’s second half for the full runtime.

Unfortunately, even when Lee is allowed to fully showcase his kung fu, his skills are undercut by the film’s persistently bad editing. During fight scenes, Lee is rarely shot in full shot, instead his movements are implied by a series of quick cuts from insert shots and close-ups. The shooting angles are often disorienting, and the camera movements lack any fluidity making many of the fights featuring Lee difficult to really follow and enjoy. I’m sure that most of the jarring cuts in the film’s fight scenes were efforts to hide the fact that during production Lee was shooting through both illness and injury, but that doesn’t make the lack of any coherent flow or rhythm to the fight scenes any less obtrusive. Add to this the fact that the beginning of the film hardly features Lee in an action role, and The Big Boss is rather disappointing as a martial arts film, on the whole. Lee and Wei would correct some of these mistakes and turn out a much more enjoyable and consistent effort with their next film, but The Big Boss still has the marks of a partnership that is being felt out, and a star persona that is just beginning to emerge.

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One of the factors contributing to my disappointment in rewatching The Big Boss might be the absolute terrible quality of the transfer on the DVD that I have in my collection. I can remember purchasing this DVD, which is essentially a decently-packaged bootleg from a foreign distributor, when I was about 19. Around that time, I started finding and purchasing very inexpensive copies of kung fu movies online, but the quality of the image and the presentation, in general, was highly variable. This movie is packaged as Fists of Fury, which was the incorrect title that The Big Boss was released under in America, hence its position here in the alphabetical list of my collection, and the disc contains no special features or booklet, just a poor quality copy of the official theatrical release cut of the film. It’s only audio track is the poorly dubbed English-language version, which I actually prefer for these types of old school kung fu movies, but it would be interesting to watch the film in its native language. I understand that by now there have been several remastered official home video releases of The Big Boss and Lee’s other Hong Kong films, so I would be interested to check out a better looking copy of the movie and see if it changes my opinion of it at all.

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I don’t mean to paint The Big Boss in too negative a light, because it is still a pretty fun kung fu movie in its own right. Despite its shortcomings, fans of the genre will absolutely find plenty to enjoy about the movie. It checks off all of the correct campy boxes, features a few fun fights, and, obviously, it’s still a Bruce Lee movie. Lee’s relatively small body of major work remains the gold standard in martial arts films for many people, and it would be hard to argue with that sentiment. Lee was the perfect combination of skill, athleticism, and charisma to break martial arts into the mainstream in the West, and the building blocks of his style are on display here. One thing that I did think about when I was watching The Big Boss was how remarkable Lee’s progression as an actor and star was from this first feature to his later films, Way of the Dragon and Enter the Dragon. There are less than two years separating the Hong Kong release of The Big Boss and Lee’s untimely death, and to think that his career had progressed so quickly and positively in that time is incredible to me, especially having recently watched Enter the Dragon for this project. It’s hard to predict where Lee’s career would have gone after the success of that film, but his rise to fame started with The Big Boss, and even if it doesn’t feature Lee at the height of his powers, it’s worth at least a watch.

A Fistful of Dollars

A Fistful of Dollars (1964)

Dir. Sergio Leone

Written by: Victor Andrés Catena, Jaime Comas, Sergio Leone

Starring: Clint Eastwood, Marianne Koch, Gian Maria Volantè, José Calvo

 

Often credited with being the first Spaghetti Western, A Fistful of Dollars, the first film in Sergio Leone’s seminal “Dollars Trilogy,” is undoubtedly one of the most famous examples of that mode of Western, and one of the best of the early period of these Italian-made takes on the Western. Leone’s film isn’t without precedent, but his partnership with Clint Eastwood became the blueprint for European Westerns, and was the first to make a splash in the American market, solidifying the viability of these cultural imports and sparking a torrent of imitators of varying quality. Adapted as it was from Akira Kurosawa’s samurai film Yojimbo, A Fistful of Dollars also points to the cultural universality of these tales, and the malleability of the Western genre to fit into various settings and cultural motifs. Leone’s and Eastwood’s epic final collaboration, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, was my first experience with the Spaghetti Western, and I quickly sought out the first two chapters in the trilogy. A Fistful of Dollars lacks the budget and flair that Leone’s later films would come to embody, but plenty of the director’s trademarks are on display here, and the film obviously points to further great work to come. Maybe A Fistful of Dollars falls short of the masterpiece designation that I have readily given to Leone’s later work, but it’s a great film in its own right, and likely more cinematically important than any other Western of the 1960s.

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In A Fistful of Dollars, Sergio Leone filters the influence of the great American Western auteurs John Ford and Howard Hawks, throws in a dash of world cinema influence, bakes it all under the Spanish sun and adds a transgressive, violent flair, resulting in a Western movie that would set the paradigm for a new form of the genre. The film opens with a lone rider, Joe (Eastwood), arriving in the town of San Miguel. Upon his arrival, Joe meets Silvanito (Calvo), the town saloonkeeper who tells him that San Miguel is controlled by two feuding gangs, the Rojos, a family of outlaws, and the Baxters, headed by Sherriff John Baxter (Wolfgang Lukschy). Though Silvanito warns the stranger that he should leave town, Joe sees an opportunity to fortuitously position himself by playing both sides of the fence in the feud between the Rojos and the Baxters, and begins to clandestinely sell information to both sides. Though his motives seem to be purely financial, Joe meets a woman, Marisol (Koch), who is being held prisoner by Ramon Rojo (Volantè), and he tries to help her. He frees Marisol and gives her and her family the money that he has gotten from the Baxters and Rojos, and tries to make it appear that it is the Baxters who have freed her. When Ramon realizes that it was Joe who freed Marisol, he captures and tortures him, and in the meantime, the Rojos murder the entire Baxter family, who they believe are protecting Joe. Joe escapes the Rojo compound and is smuggled out of town in a coffin by the undertaker, Piripero (Joseph Egger). With the Rojos searching high and low for Joe, the stranger takes time to convalesce and plan in a cave on the outskirts of San Miguel, but when he finds out that Silvanito has been captured by the Rojos, he must return to town to face off against the gang and save his friend.

I don’t know that I could narrow my list of favorite filmmakers down to something like a personal Mt. Rushmore, where I chose even half a dozen of my favorites to be immortalized, but I do know that Sergio Leone would have a place on that monument, almost regardless of its size limitations. Besides David Lynch, Leone has been one of the most constant presences in my life as a cinephile. Despite his relatively scant feature output, Leone’s work has had a seismic impact on my taste in and appreciation of film. From the first time I was introduced to The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly when I was 17 until earlier this year when I finally got around to watching and writing about Leone’s final Western, Duck You Sucker, I have been enamored with his parched, fly-bitten, primal vision of the American West. I discovered Leone, at least partially, through my teenaged obsession with Quentin Tarantino. The former video store clerk famously wore his cinematic influences on his sleeve, liberally “borrowing” from his favorite filmmakers, and championing B-movies, pulp cinema, and foreign films along the way. I discovered a lot of movies and filmmakers this way, but Leone was the one who stuck with me. I saw The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly independently, but after having seen the second half of Tarantino’s Kill Bill, and the way that that film aped the Spaghetti Western aesthetic, I started seeking out the rest of Leone’s movies.

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A Fistful of Dollars was the next Spaghetti Western that I encountered, and I have to admit that the first time I watched the movie I was a little bit disappointed. When compared to Leone’s epic later work, his debut seems slight. In hindsight, of course, I can recognize the importance of the film, both in terms of propelling the Western genre forward in a different direction, and in launching the career of an immensely important and visionary filmmaker. All of Leone’s soon-to-be familiar directorial tropes are on display in A Fistful of Dollars. This fully formed vision is likely a result of a career working as an assistant director in the Italian film industry that stretched back to the 1940s, providing Leone with the technical chops and industry know-how to deliver unique, artful feature films from the outset. A Fistful of Dollars, with its minimalist dialogue, heavy reliance on extreme close-ups, whiplash editing, and heretofore unseen violence, became the blueprint not just for Leone’s continued work, but for a new vision of the Western, in general. Shortly after the film’s release, European filmmakers across the continent, but particularly in Italy, were attempting to recreate the film’s aesthetic and mood, in hopes of capturing lightning in a bottle, to varying success.

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While some of these copy-cat Westerns are interesting in their own right, most are forgettable, at best, and unwatchable, at worst. Most of the studio directors working in the genre in Italy lacked Leone’s singular vision and visual flair, but what they all lacked was the undeniable star power and screen presence of a young Clint Eastwood. Eastwood wasn’t Leone’s first choice to play Joe in A Fistful of Dollars, but it’s impossible to imagine the film and its sequels without Eastwood as the lead. Though he is explicitly named (differently) in each of these films, Eastwood’s character(s) in Leone’s Westerns has frequently come to be referred to as “The Man With No Name,” perhaps because of Eastwood’s tight-lipped, minimalist performances in the films. His iconic performances in these films set the standard for a new type of cowboy, emerging from the shadow of straight-laced, moralistic defenders of virtue embodied by Henry Fonda, Gary Cooper, and, of course, John Wayne. Eastwood’s Joe is a quiet, cold, and efficient instrument of violence. His line delivery in the film is clipped, and the dialogue is terse, giving the impression that Joe has little regard for other people, or for human life, barely deigning to open his mouth when he communicates, even with those he seems to like. Eastwood’s Joe isn’t a nihilist, however, as he obviously shows care for Marisol, even hinting that he has a past when he remarks that he is helping her because he “knew someone like [her] once and there was no one there to help.” These brief glimpses of emotionality give the character an unexpected depth, as does the natural humor that Eastwood imbues Joe with. Throughout the film, he makes wry, offhanded retorts and observations, but the humor never feels shoehorned, despite its existence in the brutal universe of Leone’s West. This multifaceted performance as a complex anti-hero turned Eastwood into a bona fide star, and helped to raise A Fistful of Dollars head and shoulders above its imitators.

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Another major factor in the success of A Fistful of Dollars is its source material, with the film being an adaptation of Yojimbo. Though Leone denied that Yojimbo is the sole inspiration for his film, and quite obviously it is not, there is no denying that that film is at least the primary influence at work here. The two films share a symbiotic kind of bond, with Yojimbo retroactively being thought of as a Western, due to its influence on A Fistful of Dollars, and examination of Kurosawa’s samurai films reveals the obvious influence of the American Western. One of the things that I like so much about A Fistful of Dollars is that it is a great example of the cultural cross pollination that cinema can provide. The movie is a Western directed by an Italian, shot in Spain with a cast of Spanish and German actors, starring a barely-known American television actor, adapted from a traditional Japanese samurai film, which was, in turn, influenced by American pulp novels and Westerns. The 1950s and, particularly, 1960s became a boom period for international cinema as film industries in Europe began to rebuild after the devastation of World War II, and the arthouse movement in America began to open up American eyes to movies from around the world that differed significantly from the stories being produced by the recently-abandoned Hollywood studio system. Though it was dismissed as campy and schlocky, nihilistic and excessively violent, by critics upon its American release, A Fistful of Dollars was a major hit with audiences, and it has come to be seen as an important film, aesthetically and culturally, in the broader conversation of the history of world cinema. The cinematic interconnections made here, and throughout Leone’s body of work, indicate the kind of cultural universality that makes great cinematic texts so valuable and so relatable across cultures. A great movie is a great movie, regardless of its language or its visual and cultural aesthetic, and the kinds of pleasures that people take in the visual telling of a great tale are universal.

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As I’ve alluded to, Leone would go on to make bigger, better Westerns and movies that I enjoy more than this one, but without A Fistful of Dollars none of those films would likely exist. A Fistful of Dollars changed the landscape of the Western genre, with the once-quintessential American film being reimagined by an outsider. Leone embraced many of the traditions of the classic American Western, but rejected those parts of the genre that he saw as fallacies, replacing them with a more real, more raw, more savage West, peopled by men of dubious character and duplicitous motivation and painted with buckets of bright red blood. This gritty realism would come to inform the revisionist Westerns of the later 20th century, as well as the hardcore action films of the 1970s. There’s no understating the importance of this movie on the Western genre, helping as it did to revitalize a form that had probably gotten too mired in its own tropes and pretenses by the end of the 1950s. Without this movie we might not get The Wild Bunch, and certainly wouldn’t get Unforgiven, but we also might never get movies like Pulp Fiction or Taxi Driver whose creators were sparked by the unique vision of Sergio Leone. I’ll always prefer The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly for its maximalist impact, and because it was my first foray into the world of a filmmaker whose entire body of work I celebrate, but when I don’t have three hours to truly immerse myself in that epic, A Fistful of Dollars is a perfectly fine substitute. While the later film expands upon all of the best tropes of the Spaghetti Western, Leone’s debut establishes them, concentrating them down into their most essential qualities, and providing a blueprint for the rest of the genre to come.