When Good Directors… GO BAD!!!

There’s a website, Jump the Shark, which is devoted to trying to pinpoint the moment when once-great TV shows “lost it” e.g. the musical episode in Buffy, the arrival of Joxer in Xena. It’s not, however, a concept limited to television. We’re all familiar with film-makers, on both side of the camera, who appear on the scene in a blaze of glory early in their careers, a shooting-star soaring across the firmament, only to crash and burn in an equally meteoric way, reduced to churning out a steadily-decreasing standard of dreck.

But why is the horror genre so particularly blessed with these? It seems to suck the very life out of directors, to the extent that I can think of only one who has maintained genuine quality in his work for more than a few years: David Cronenberg. Let’s take a look at a few particularly fallen angels, and see if we can find when they jumped their sharks. For assistance, we call on the surveys in the Internet Movie Database, whose users are able to rate movies on a scale from one to ten…

Exhibit A in any such discussion must be John Carpenter. In the late 70’s and early 80’s, he showed near-genius level talent, first with Halloween and then The Thing, which both remain classics even now – rarely has the slasher movie or alien invasion pic respectively been done to such good effect.

The graph at left shows his decline and fall since: his first six movies averaged a very healthy 6.95. But since The Thing, he’s not come within a quarter-point of that, and it’s been steadily more painful to watch – his most recent four come in, as a group, at under 5.1. The gulf between Escape from New York and Escape from L.A. (same director, same star, fifteen years apart) is a cavernous three points.

My hypothesis is this: at some point on the set of Christine, Carpenter was kidnapped by aliens and replaced by an almost-identical double. The only way to tell them apart, is that the clone lacks any artistic talent – the theme of extra-terrestrials which look just like us is a familiar one in his work, perhaps a subtle clue to those viewers able to pick up on it. The real Carpenter is probably making TV commercials on Alpha Centauri.

Next up is Tobe Hooper – you know your career is a bust, when you’ve made ten films, and Lifeforce gets a place on the podium (hey, I like it, but it’s not one of those I could defend to anyone else). If Hooper ever possessed any ability, it appears to have evaporated completely in the past decade – the last movie Hooper directed whose score reached the dizzy heights of, say, 4.0, was way back in 1989.

There is one bump on the steady road towards TVMs and video-premierdom: Poltergeist, the highest-rated film of Hooper’s career. Or it would be, if the authorship of Poltergeist wasn’t severely in doubt. Much evidence points towards Steven Spielberg, who conceived, co-wrote and produced it, as well as allegedly taking over all post-production. Producer Frank Marshall has said Spielberg was on set constantly and would step in when Hooper was indecisive, and it seems likely Hooper was hired to act as an ‘Alan Smithee’, allowing Spielberg to sidestep around a clause in his E.T. contract.

With a big warning * beside Poltergeist, it really leaves only Texas Chainsaw Massacre worthy of note. The presence of much actual directorial talent here is also questionable: looking at the subsequent filmographies of pretty much everyone involved, it seems like one of those happy coincidences, where the resulting product exceeded the talents of most of those involved. [See also Miracle Mile, Enter the Dragon and Heathers] Hooper was simply in the right place at the right time, and has been living off those pickings for more than 25 years.

Finally, a trickier example: Dario Argento. Looking at his graph, we first see an increase, through his early 80’s work, and only then a drop off. As you’d expect from a man who illustrates well the thin line between genius and lunacy (often managing both in the same movie), it’s harder to pinpoint one specific production when he lost it. At first glance, after Deep Red would appear to be the obvious choice, but you’d be hard pushed to justify calling his ‘Three Mothers’ trilogy, whose average sits above 7.0, as the work of someone past his prime.

Personally, I would pin-point the moment, not just to a film, but to the end of Opera, which is so utterly laughable and ludicrous (yes, policemen routinely mistake tailor’s dummies for corpses), it was clear that Argento had blown his talent. Once we get past that film, however, it’s clear that something happened – too much drugs, according to some reports. Being fair, we can’t blame him entirely for The Dark Half, since there’s no way for IMDB voters to separate his portion from Romero’s. But Trauma, his subsequent solo project, was hardly any better, and after a brief upshot for Stendhal, he was back down, almost to Tobe Hooper levels, for Phantom of the Opera.

However, a miracle would appear to have occurred this year, with Sleepless bucking the trend to rate a full two points higher than his previous movie – a turnaround not seen for Carpenter or Hooper. However, caution would be urged, not least because the film hasn’t had an American release, so as far as IMDB voters go, I suspect it has been seen largely by (the few remaining) sad Argento fanboys. The jury will therefore remain out on that one, and a final staking of a former great talent is on hold pending the TC review

Does this “prove” anything? Not really. But it seems that the point at which directors jump the shark is likely to be around the time that their movies are worse than their debuts. This makes sense, in that you would expect someone to get better with experience – and also, budgets will probably also be bigger, improving the technical aspects. If later movies are no improvement over your first, than clearly something pretty questionable is going on with your career.

Incredibly Bad Film Show: Battlefield Earth

Be  afraid. Be VERY afraid...Dir: Roger Christian
Star: John Travolta, Barry Pepper, Forest Whitaker, Kim Coates

I just wouldn’t let it lie. I wouldn’t take a telling. No less a person than my fiancee said this was, “the most awful film I think it has been my utter displeasure to have attended in my entire life”. I should have trusted her. I’m very, very sorry. The trailer goes, “If you think you’ve known fear… If you think you’ve faced pain…”, and there is an overwhelming urge to chime in, “You clearly haven’t had to sit through Battlefield Earth“. This is truly bad: I suspect its biggest fan is probably Paul Verhoeven, since no-one will ever speak ill of Showgirls again.

It doesn’t actually begin too badly, though I don’t know about man being an endangered species, as the opening text claims – it’s John Travolta’s career that’s about to be put in extreme peril. In the year 3000, humanity has been reduced to a primeval state, harbouring vague memories of civilization, gods and demons. We can tell it’s primeval, because all the men look like Swampy. Hell, all the women look like Swampy. Our hero, Jonnie (Pepper, in his last starring role – trust me on this one) leaves the sanctuary of the mountains to find these mythical gods in a ruined city. I have to say, the effects and sets are excellent, and I was wondering if this was perhaps more a misunderstood gem.

How wrong I was. For then the invading alien race, the Psychlos, turn up and start firing. For some reason, the movie suddenly acquires a virulent green tint, the first of many totally gratuitous filters director Christian puts in front of the camera. Green, blue, orange – even more than one in the same shot. And when he hasn’t got out his Crayolas, he’s tilting the camera: initially, it didn’t make much difference since, hey, mountains are kind of tilty anyway, but this gets old fast on any level playing-field. The drinking game for this movie should involve taking a swig each time the camera moves off the horizontal: should ensure oblivion is reached by about 30 minutes, a best-case scenario for any viewer.

All  together now...  LEAN...Roger Christian’s direction: “Tilt the camera MORE! Put another filter on!”

Anyway, Jonnie gets captured, pausing only to crash through a succession of plate-glass windows, all remarkably intact, despite the passage of enough time for cities to crumble. His attempts to escape bring him into contact – literally – with Terl (Travolta), the Psychlo security officer who is mean and grumpy even when he isn’t stuck on Earth “with endless options for renewal”, after being caught shagging a senator’s daughter. Bizarrely, there’s much in the film that revolves around office politics of the most banal sort, which is wildly out of place in a supposed SF-action pic.

“In order to feel safer on his private jet, John Travolta has purchased a bomb-sniffing dog. Unfortunately for the actor, the dog came six movies too late”
Tina Fey, Saturday Night Live

Hard to say which is worse, Travolta’s appearance or his acting. Things the movies teach us, #391: it is hard to exude menace, when you have tubes stuck up both your nostrils. And that’s excluding Terl’s funky dreads and the platform soles, clearly intended to increase his stature, but which actually make him resemble a former member of Slade as he clomps around. Travolta’s performance is no more comfortable, and would be barely acceptable as a pantomime villain at the Fairfield Halls, Croydon.

Forrest  Whitaker wonders,  'Does my bum look big in this?' Our hero, meanwhile, is stuck with the other “man-animals” and fed something green and lumpy; it must be good, as a fight breaks out over its distribution, albeit only so Jonnie can give the “we humans have to stick together” speech. Terl, meanwhile, has his own plans. The Psychlos came to Earth in search of gold (coincidentally, also a rare element on their planet), and he wants to use humans to operate the mining machinery, which would be a breach of the rules. He also lets Jonnie and two colleagues out, purely in order to find out what humans like most to eat – I guess asking them would have been too much trouble – and comes to the conclusion that it’s rat.

He plugs Jonnie into a learning machine, force-feeding him, not just the knowledge necessary to work the machinery, but the entire Encyclopedia Galactica, including the bits on military technology. Oops. If Terl is supposed to be one of the elite, you wonder how such a dumb species ever discovered the wheel, never mind interstellar teleportation. He then brings Jonnie to the destroyed Denver public library, just to emphasise that knowledge is useless. Jonnie picks up from the rubble…well, for one glorious moment, I thought it was going to be a copy of L.Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics, but it’s even more cliched – the Declaration of Independence.

Terl can’t survive outdoors because radiation makes the atmosphere the Psychlos breath explode [This an Important Plot Point, once you can get past wondering about the dubious physics involved]. So he leaves Jonnie and his crew to mine for two weeks and wanders off. Jonnie uses his new-found knowledge instead to sprint around the United States, dropping off local cavemen at flight simulators so they can learn to fly fighter jets [miraculously still in working order after a thousand years or so], picking up nuclear bombs, oh, and looting gold from Fort Knox. Terl, of course, barely questions why his gold mine is miraculously producing bullion bars, probably stamped, “Property of US Government”.

Jonnie kicks off the revolt, and then…to be honest, I’m not sure what happens, exactly, as the story is edited in such a way as to border on the incoherent. Must have been damn fine flight simulators though, as the cavemen are now flying like Tom Cruise on amphetamines. The nuclear bomb is snuck through the teleportation gateway to the Psychlos home planet, where it blows up, causing the entire atmosphere to go with it. Kinda lucky such an unstable planet had survived the four billion years necessary to evolve intelligent life.

A potential  Scientologist tries to evade recruitment Terl meanwhile, gets his arm blown off – reacting with much the same depth of emotion you’d get if someone told him there was a thread on his suit jacket – and is kept hostage by Jonnie for reasons which remain unclear to this day. Estimated cost: $73m. American box-office: $21m. Watching John Travolta’s smug Scientologist face as his career goes down the plughole: priceless.

It’s impossible to list all the ways in which this film is jaw-droppingly awful. The plot makes no sense, the acting is awful, the direction woeful. I’ve read the original novel (hey, so shoot me) and it’s actually not bad, or at least not disastrous, in a pulp SF kinda way. Its miserable box-office doesn’t tell the whole tale, since it’s widely known that Scientologists were asked to go and see the movie multiple times on the first weekend. About the only thing in its favour is that, while I’ve no doubt Hubbard’s name is largely what got Travolta interested, it surely is too bad to contain any kind of cult-indoctrination message.

Rottentomatoes.com lists the final critical score at 69-4 against, an unprecedented tidal wave of hate. The Battlefield Earth FAQ goes even further, cherrypicking the bad ones. Believe the hype on this one: it’s every bit as poor as you imagined, and then some.

See also…

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