We can spend a whole lifetime debating why some films connect with an audience while others remain left out in the cold. Yet, many titles endure as favorites, good or bad, and often for surprisingly personal reasons. That’s the focus of this edition of the Carreón Cinema Club: The “Films That Make You Go Hmm!”
When I started mulling over this episode’s topic, it was hard not to focus on just flops with cult followings. Every movie fan has a list of guilty pleasures, including box office monsters or monster flops. I’m notorious for not being able to differentiate between either. My good may be your bad, and vice versa. Besides, anyone who’s been on a set knows that it takes the same amount of effort to make a good film as it does a bad one. What kickstarted my engines to hit overdrive was a simple question: What is it about certain movies that straddle both lines of success and failure, the ones you wonder, “Was that the best they could do?” Those are the films that make you go Hmm. Depending on your tastes, any list can be chock full of surprises, but I’m only going to offer up three titles for now. Ready? Here we go!
FATAL ATTRACTION (1987) — Directed by Adrian Lyne
I will never forget the eager audience at the Mann Bruin in Westwood, CA, the night Fatal Attraction opened in 1987. You could feel the anticipation growing as the lights went down, and the trailers started playing. Blood was in the air. We wanted to see a crazy Glenn Close in action. What makes this significant is that the group excitement was driven only by TV spots and word of mouth. Before reality shows, recap culture, and the vast network of trash-talking platforms overtook all media coverage. The audience took pleasure that night in ’87, gaping at director Adrian Lyne’s ability to present a chic, upper West Side veneer of gloss and privilege sullied by curly haired madness and one, crowd-pleasing gunshot at the bitter end. It was like the opera diva hit a high note; the applause was deafening.
Fatal Attraction was a zeitgeist hit, its vision of infidelity gone wrong, becoming the topic of opinion pieces and talk shows for weeks. Audiences couldn’t get enough, turning the film into a major hit, becoming the highest-grossing film of that year worldwide. The title itself became synonymous with unhinged exes. It even earned six Academy Awards nominations , including Best Picture. But was it that good? More, does it hold up in the post-lions and Christians era of social media, reality TV, and the MeToo era? Not even close. Ha.
Watching Fatal Attraction today is to be turned off by its carefully designed vision of white male privilege and entitlement. Nothing happens to Michael Douglas, the lawyer husband who cheats on his gorgeous and wholesome wife with a rather intense book editor played by Glenn Close. His so-called punishments effect his pride and ego. Okay, she boils the family’s rabbit, destroys his car, kidnaps his daughter from elementary school to ride a roller coaster, and sends him a cassette of a profane rant. He got laid twice and freaks over why the woman in question can’t take no for an answer for his being a selfish asshole. No, the dirty is done by and to the women, a showdown between the perfectly wavy-haired Madonna and the frizzy permed whore. Instead of nuance, they represent extremes, trading looks of betrayal or outrage. It was hailed as visionary to have wifey Anne Archer shoot Glenn Close in the final, come-back-from-the-dead-moment. But it wasn’t. It was just slasher film lite nonsense.
Movie writers made much ado about the famed original ending, where Glenn Close commits suicide to the celebrated aria from Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. The knife she used was one held by Douglas to threaten her in a previous scene. With his fingerprints still on the weapon, the police arrive at his home to arrest him, giving Close what appears to be the final word. Mama Archer is stupefied, with Douglas yells at her to call a lawyer. She runs into the house, goes into his artfully decorated man cave to make the call, only to stumble upon the cassette sent by Close. Archer plays it, rewinds one passage, hearing Close would just have to cut herself deeper, killing herself. With evidence of the suicide, not murder in hand, Archer bolts out of the room. We hear her saying to her daughter as she runs out, “Come on honey, we’re going to get Daddy.” Test audiences hated that Douglas was even punished a little, leading to a new ending, further underscoring the perils of a group vote in Hollywood. It did make a difference, though. Instead of earning a possible $15 million at the US box office, the film cashed out with nearly $160 million instead.
Fatal Attraction does hold a special place in history for being one of the trashiest films ever to be validated by Oscar nominations. It makes you go “Hmm” as to why so many people venerated the movie in its time. Close is a complex actor of incredible skill and depth, and you have to admire what she tries to do with the character. The idea of someone turning the tables on an unfaithful, arrogant partner is a good one. With violence perpetrated against women a major problem worldwide, seeing it done for entertainment purposes with a false ending of so-called female empowerment diminishes and trivializes what could have been a fascinating study of an age-old question. Why do people cheat? Instead, we get a passionate male fantasy dressed in white jersey and black leather, set in some gorgeous looking spaces in New York City. It’s fatal, alright.
CATS (2019) — Directed by Tom Hooper
Ah, what to say about Cats. The musical’s tag line was “Now and Forever.” The film version bears the legend, “What the Fuck Was That?” One of the most successful musicals ever produced, studios circled it for several decades. Besides its being a plotless show based on poems by T. S. Eliot, the underlying problem was how do you present it in a filmed medium. At one point, it looked like Cats would roam as an animated feature, which in hindsight, wouldn’t have been so terrible.
With musical films still doing surprisingly well at the box office, fans cheered when Universal announced that Cats the movie would be helmed by Tom Hooper. The man who shepherded the Oscar-winning hit adaptation of Les Misérables would now herd the kitties for the big screen. Its glittering cast led by James Corden, Taylor Swift, Judi Dench, and Jennifer Hudson, who’d sing the legendary “Memory” on screen, felt like this years-in-the-making version of Cats was on the right track. Then we saw the first trailer. Oooof. Derided and dissed, hated and hissed, Cats looked like a dog.
Once you saw it, design-wise, Eve Stewart’s Cats is a dream to look at on-screen, filling it in a way John Napier’s original stage production set could not. The choreography earned comparisons, too. Fans found themselves divided over Gillian Lynne’s original choreography, a landmark blend of acrobatics and modern dance enhanced by feline movement, versus Hamilton‘s Andy Blankenbuehler’s edgier take. Yet, even with such glittering trappings, most audiences either stayed away or failed to enjoy the experience if they did go.
Whatever committee agreed to employ motion capture effects, projecting the cast’s faces onto feline bodies, doomed the film from the start. You can accept it in Star Wars or Lord of the Rings, but the sight of La Dench doing a leg extension stretch like a cat was too much to handle. That was a “Hmm” moment for the ages. Of course, it did trigger cheers from the “It’s so bad it’s good” crowd, who turned Cats into The Rocky Horror Picture Show for the 21st century. Leave it to some folks to pull the one thread from this ball of wool to play with good fun.
Some magic does exist in Hooper’s super-sized production. The appearance of Taylor Swift, late as it is, is welcome. Her natural gifts as a performer found the right space. The same applies to Jennifer Hudson, whose delivery of the classic “Memory” is one to remember. Francesca Hayward and Robert Fairchild also make good on delivering the dance elements with grace and excitement. But it ends there, at least for me.
In the end, Cats is for the curious only. However, I will never forget the sight of one little girl watching the film that Christmas week at a theater in Mexico City, where I saw the movie with my family. My siblings slept, but as I walked out to see why my mother hadn’t come back to her seat, I saw this child looking at the screen with a smile; you can see it was one of absolute wonder and joy. She loved the film. As for my mom, she was reading a magazine in the lobby.
THE BLACK HOLE (1979) — Directed by Gary Nelson
The unexpected success of George Lucas’s Star Wars in 1977 paved the way for special effects-driven narratives that could transport audiences further than ever before. In 1978, Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie had droves of moviegoers believing a man could fly. And in 1979, Disney unveiled the dark space mysteries of The Black Hole.
Young listeners, believe it or not, a time existed where Disney was floundering in leading the cinematic charge. Even its fabled animation division was struggling for relevancy. Tastes were changing, and audiences no longer sought the family films that were the studio’s hallmark. Disney had been developing a space-themed adventure for the better part of the 1970s, which eventually became The Black Hole. Instead of delving into the heart of darkness in space, the studio opted to rehash its famed 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea with wildly uneven results.
What makes you go “Hmm” over this film is when you ponder what could have been.
The famed imaginations of Harrison and Peter Ellenshaw and their visual effects team dreamed up visceral images of the black hole phenomenon in space. Their matte paintings also added plenty of fire to some of the widescreen sequences. The entire enterprise should have broadened Disney’s reach outside of kid-centric fare to keep the brand alive. Instead, the film was an awkward blend of its former self and its future goals, with neither coming out ahead. For all its visual wonder in places, you could see how the marketing team wanted to commodify its leading robotic players. The tie-ins were plentiful, the robots were cute and menacing, but the film’s failure meant no one wanted The Black Hole merch for Christmas 1978.
None of its accomplished ensemble cast led by Maximillian Schell, Anthony Perkins, Robert Forster, Yvette Mimieux, and Ernest Borgnine could do anything with the by-the-numbers script. And its lofty desire to visualize the descent into the Heaven and Hell of the black hole was laughable, along with some other less than effective sequences. What could have helped was having a director with vision, not Gary Nelson, the man who brought forth Freaky Friday and The Boy Who Talked to Badgers for the studio, as well as episodes of Gilligan’s Island and The Patty Duke Show.
Science dictates that nothing can escape the pull of a black hole in space. Trust me. People avoided its force on Earth that Christmas season, bringing Disney a sizeable lump of coal. Despite its failure, Disney did not give up on creating more mature fare, as exemplified by the original Tron, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and the notorious Watcher in the Woods in the early 80s. Still, a cult following has developed for The Black Hole, one that continues to grow. So much so, Disney is looking to revive the movie again. Given the studio’s revamped fortunes courtesy of Lucasfilm and Marvel, a black hole may be swirling our way sooner than later. In the meantime, witness the humble origins of a powerhouse genre.
We could go on for a while longer discussing the films that make you go Hmm, but rest assured it will be back to ponder again. David Lynch’s baroque take on Frank Herbert’s Dune and the hateful, franchise killing sequel to Sex and the City both come to mind. Until the Club meets again, stay safe and healthy out there, mi gente.