Heartwarming! From the outstanding cast chemistry to the clever writing, you need to make I Want You Back part of your Valentine’s Day celebrations at the cinema (for the limited theatrical run) or on Amazon Prime Video. Much like Broken Hearts Gallery showed us that the romcom can be reimagined for today’s teen and 20-something audiences, Jason Orley’s I Want You Back is the romcom reimagined for 30-something audiences. If it can make cynics like me once again believe that my “plane mask buddy” (you’ll just have to see the film to get the reference) is still out there, you too will find the story incredibly endearing! While the classical American romcom has largely fallen out of favor with a significant portion of movie audiences over the last decade or so, there are films that take the foundation of what made the romcom such an American cinema staple, and upon it, build plots and characters that both resonate across ages and cultures and still deliver the quirks and laughs that are such a hallmark of the romcom. It’s been a long time since I’ve witnessed such excellent chemistry between an ensemble in a comedy, and it is the characters that will command a rewatch of this soon-to-be quintessential romcom, that will undoubtedly rank up there with the likes of Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail, Two Weeks Notice and more.
Peter (Charlie Day) and Emma (Jenny Slate) are total strangers. When they meet, they realize they were both dumped on the same weekend. Their commiseration turns into a mission when they see that each of their ex-partners have happily moved on to new romances.
What makes this movie work so well is the focus on character-driven (or dramatic) storytelling. When the character(s) drives the plot, we refer to it as drama, while the action driving the plot is referred to as melodrama. Just a little film studies there, for ya. The movie wastes no time in establishing who our central and chief supporting characters are; this is an important screenwriting decision because it allows for the character reactions to drive the story in a manner in which we believe everything the characters do because the rules for the characters were established up front. You can get away with anything if you set it up appropriately.
Yes, there are melodramatic moments (and you will need to engage your suspension of disbelief), but every emotional beat and turning point is earned and delivered meaningfully. Meaningful. That is a description that is so often overlooked in comedies. When writers focus so much on laughs, the art of meaningful storytelling is lost. In the writers room, a strong story with well-developed plot and characters can always be punched up with laughs, versus a laugh-a-minute story with poorly-developed plot and characters, which has a problem requiring major diegetic surgery.
Authenticity! You will find the characters to be incredibly believable and real, with little to no pretense. Our leads and supporting cast feel like your coworkers, neighbors, and friends. We all have someone in our lives of whom the characters will remind us. In fact, you will likely see yourself IN one or more of the characters. When you can place yourself in the story, the degree to which it impacts you will significantly increase. And it’s even better when you can laugh along with the characters. But what makes these characters connect and resonate with audiences is the unexpected level of vulnerability the characters demonstrate. And it’s our vulnerabilities, our flaws and the ability to learn, grow, and experience redemption that makes us human.
Perhaps you are like me, a romantic cynic. So, your default setting is disdain and pessimism for anything that even has a hint of romance and erotic love. I find it difficult to connect with the typical romcom, even the great ones of the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s. Just feels like something so out of reach and unbelievable that I’d rather watch another horror movie. If someone like me can be touched by I Want You Back, then I know that it can touch even the most cynical. Personally, I see myself as two-parts Emma and one-part Peter. And it’s the prolific opportunities to connect with the characters that will cause this movie to find a place in your heart.
Ryan teaches Film Studies and Digital Citizenship at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with him.
I LoveBeing the Ricardos. Whether you are a fan or scholar of I Love Lucy or not, this biographical motion picture is for you! Go behind the walls of 623 E. 68th St. (an address that in real life would be in the East River), and get up close and personal with one of the toughest weeks in Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz’ careers and the run of the sitcom. Being the Ricardos also represents Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut, and be brings with him his penchant for exploring the human condition through dialogue steeped in subtext, thus adding the dramatic dimension to the dialogue. What I appreciate about Sorkin’s approach is how he seamlessly layers two timelines and a meta narrative into one another, in a manner that is consistently driving the plot forward in terms of plot and character. While the central focus of the film is on Lucille Ball being accused of being a communist, there are ancillary stories on Desi’s affairs and Vivan Vance’s complicated relationship with Lucille Ball and her character Ethel Mertz. William Frawley is depicted as the most level-headed out of the whole cast. Other dynamics of the mother of all sitcoms include the the power dynamic between the writers Madelyn Pugh, Bob Carroll Jr., and executive producer Jess Oppenheimer. Throughout the film, one theme is clear: home. What does a home mean or look like to you? Lucy desires a home, and she will fight for it.
In 1952, Hollywood power couple Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz face a series of personal and professional crises that threaten their careers, their relationship and their hit TV show.
With so many layers at play, it may have proven to be disastrous for many if not most writer-directors, but not Aaron Sorkin. Any reviews you’ve heard or read that suggest Being the Ricardos is too inside baseball are wildly exaggerated. Yes, there is a greater appreciation for the film by those that know I Love Lucy well, but even those that only know of the sitcom will appreciate it. The friend that attended with me had virtually no substantive knowledge of I Love Lucy, yet he laughed along with this film, and knew precisely what was going on and why it was so important. If you are a member of the creative economy that runs, writes for, or acts in a sitcom, then you will have a greater level of empathy and understanding for the ups and downs faced by writers, actors, producers, and sponsors in Being the Ricardos.
Being the Ricardos starts out “in the future” with interviews with the (late in real life) Jess Oppenheimer, Bob Carroll Jr., and Madelyn Pugh about I Love Lucy and that week–and they all had the same reaction. Although I thought the three comedy writers had passed away, I was completely convinced that Sorkin was interviewing the TV legends. I actually had to check Wikipedia for the death dates. Anyway. The illusion of a documentary layer added to the authenticity of this film. Periodically throughout the film, we return to our writers and executive producer for some retrospective commentary on the “past” or “present” story. These interview segments provide a more substantive context for the conflict to follow. Furthermore, it adds come comedic relief for the otherwise serious film.
Often times, these type of biographic motion pictures work to humanize or make relatable the central figure(s), and Sorkin’s film does just that. Even though the world knows that Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz divorced in 1960 (following the final performance of the Lucy Desi Comedy Hour), we still think fo them as the madly-in-love couple at 623 E. 68th St (and later at their house in West Chester, CT). Going behind the scenes, we witness four actors with their own demons and flaws. Perhaps you can identify with the struggles experienced by Lucy, Desi, Vivian, or William (Bill). And not just them, but Madelyn, Bob, and Jess too. More than a historical biographical picture, this is a motion picture that is very much a story of what it means to be human that is paired with a deep dive into one of the most beloved TV shows of all time.
Kidman’s performance as Lucille Ball and Javier Bardem’s performance as Desi are excellent! While Bardem may not disappear behind the costuming, hair, and makeup to the degree that Kidman does, he had Desi’s mannerisms and body language down pat! Clearly, he spent a great deal of time preparing for a role that has major shoes to fill, or should I say bongos to play. From her voice to her appearance to her body language, Nicole Kidman will wow you with her portrayal of the Queen of Comedy Lucille Ball. Kidman’s preparation for this role of a lifetime paid off in spades. If I didn’t know any better, I’d almost believe that I was watching Lucille Ball on screen. It reminds me, in many ways, of Jessica Chastain’s outstanding performance as Tammy Faye in (my favorite film of 2021) The Eyes of Tammy Faye.
For fans of the show, you may notice some continuity errors. Now, these errors don’t detract away from the film, but may surprise you. The show is in the middle of the second season, but the apartment set is the apartment they would move into after Little Ricky was born in Season 3. The giveaway was the window in the back. And in the film when they are referring to baby the Ricardos will have, it’s actually Desi Jr. that would be born during the third season and not Lucie, which is what is depicted in the film.
While we get a flashforwards to the famous grape vat scene, we do not get the most famous scene from I Love Lucy of all time: Vitameatavegemin. It is referenced, but we do not get to see Kidman recreate this scene. Maybe it’s a bonus feature on the BluRay. I hope so anyway!
Ryan teaches American and World Cinema at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with him.
While the official announcement was unaccompanied with fanfare, the overturning of the landmark ruling in “U.S. v Paramount Pictures, Inc., et al” (1948) on Friday, August 7, 2020 marks a turning point in the business of modern cinema. Also known as The Paramount Decision and The Hollywood Antitrust Case, this ruling marked the end of Hollywood’s Golden Age and the decline of the Studio System that upheld it. What exactly does this mean for the business moving forward? Short answer: nobody knows, and anyone claiming to know what IS going to happen is incredibly presumptuous. However, by looking at the history of the 1948 ruling and the current events surrounding the August 7th ruling, we can explore this watershed moment in the film business, both past and present. Furthermore, we can extrapolate from past precedent what may happen or even could happen today. One thing is certain, we are in rapidly ranging and even uncertain times due to the direct and indirect impacts of the response to COVID-19. Although the federal court began reevaluating this case in late 2019, it is undeniable that the impact of the response to the effects of the virus may have played a latent role in the final decision. From a massive increase in streaming content options to premium paid video-on-demand (PVOD) to continued (at the time of this writing) delays in returning “big ticket” first-run movies to theatrical exhibition, there are many factors at play here. Not to mention questions such as “if I am an indie filmmaker, will I be able to get my movies in theatrical chains,” “does this mean that Amazon or Apple will buy up struggling chains like AMC,” or “if I am a screenwriter, will I still be able to submit my screenplays to studios if they are completely vertically integrated?” Perhaps this exploration of the past, present, and future of the film business in light of the overturn of the Paramount Decision won’t be able to provide definitive answers, but it will provide historical, empirical, and observational evidences to suggest what may or could happen moving forward.
In short, the Paramount Decision (1948) was a landmark case in which the US Government forced the eight major/minor studio players to end the practice of block booking, divest themselves of their respective theatre chains (sell them off), and modify the practice of long-term employee contracts (although, this practice would continue until the 1960s). This marked the beginning of the end of the Studio System, AKA Hollywood’s decentralization. But before we can even begin to understand the significance of the August 7, 2020 decision that overturned the landmark ruling, we have to jump in the wayback machine and head to Hollywood’s Golden Age (recently seen on Ryan Murphy’s Hollywood, a 2020 limited-run series on Netflix).
What was the studio system anyway? It was the arrangement of film production and distribution dominated by a small number of studios in Hollywood. Historically, the term refers to the practice of large motion picture studios, between the 1920s-60s, of producing movies primarily on their own backlots with creative personnel often under long-term contracts, and which dominated exhibition through the vertical integration of company-owned movie theatres. Block booking was also a common practice at this time. This process forced theatres to accept a block of movies from a studio. If an independent theatre wanted to show Movie A, then the studio would require the theatre to also accept and show Movies B, C, D, and E too.
Years before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the once powerful Paramount Pictures, the biggest studio in Hollywood at the time, there were constant legal and ethical issues plaguing the storied studio system that produced some of the most foundational films in cinema history. Back during the height of the studio system, there were eight principle players: the Big Five and the Little Three. The Big Five was comprised of: Paramount, MGM, Warner Bros., 20th Century Fox, and RKO; the Little Three included Universal, Columbia, and United Artists. You may (1) recognize some of those names today and (2) notice that there is a famous studio conspicuously missing. The latter is due to Walt Disney Studios being in its infancy during this time. Ironically, it would become nearly completely vertically integrated in the 20th and 21st centuries, minus owning a chain of movie theatres. In a manner of speaking the Walt Disney Company operates in a very similar fashion to that of its older brothers and sisters.
When I took a tour of Paramount Pictures back in 2015, I asked how many full-time staff worked on the lot. And the tour guide responded with 30-40 people. That’s right, only 30-40 people at the time. While that number may have fluctuated in the last five years, it leads me into one of the practices that came to a close when the Studio System fell. Prior to the Paramount Decision and the development of professional unions, studios held movie stars, directors, writers, and others to longterm contracts (with few, if any, options). Contracts were so tightly managed, that studios would loan stars to other studios, for example Paramount may choose to loan out Mae West to M-G-M in exchange for Judy Garland. The on screen talent wasn’t the only area treated as a commodity, virtually every role in front or or behind the camera was under contract to a studio, including directors and writers.
While this looks like an infringement upon civil liberties through our 2020 eyes, and there are many reasons it should, there was something positive regarding employment during the Studio System: job security. When you worked for the studio, you worked for the studio and made all its pictures. Meaning, you knew you had regular employment until your contract was satisfied, you quit, or were fired. Employees didn’t have to worry about when and where the next gig was; employees went to work, Monday through Friday if you will, just like other working professionals. Furthermore, this centralized human resources system also made it possible to apply for vacant positions as a director, writer, craftsman, or any other position. There were also a great number of formal apprenticeships for those who were trying to break into the system. Sounds great, right? Well, yes and no. Yes, for reasons of streamlining the hiring process and providing stable employment in the field; and no, because the studio (that also likely controlled movie theatres) would not produce or distribute your picture unless you worked for the studio. It was a closed corporate system, so independents were largely kept out of it. From submitting screenplays to theatrical distribution, aspiring filmmakers either had to join the corporate ranks of the studio system or exhibit their pictures in small independent movie houses, IF they could even get the film developed and edited.
Even before the 1948 decision, the studio system and studio-theatre relationships were under attack, but the studios were able to find loop-holes and political alliances in order to avoid the breakup of the vertical integration that was expensive to maintain but highly lucrative. As the movie studios regrouped for continued legal battles in the court system and Justice Department, media mogul Howard Hughes of storied RKO Pictures made the decision to sell off his movie theatres. When The Justice Department made it clear that there were to be no more deals between the government and the movie studios, Paramount sold its movies theaters in an attempt to buy into television. However, after the legacy studio’s continued involvement in all the antitrust cases leading to the final decision in 1948, the government did not permit Paramount to maintain any semblance of a monopoly in the frontier of television.The battle to keep the studio system was finally over. In the end, the Paramount case influenced the growth of television because, among other reasons, RKO and other studios sold their film libraries to television stations to offset the losses from the Paramount Decision. The studios also released actors from those longterm contracts, and many became television stars.
Although there are many side-effects and tangential reasons why the studio system (1) was lucrative and (2) hard to dismantle, there is one root reason from which everything else radiated: control. Everything gets back to control. Control of movie stars, control of writers and directors, control of the distribution and exhibition process. With all this control, the Studio System was able to craft its own narrative and success story. While the system was lucrative, it also racked up a lot of debt. Debt that came from borrowing from banks, exorbitant movie star salaries, and fighting legal battles. Even though the system had a lot of problems, it still gave us some of the best movies of all time, motion pictures that are larger than life, and those that typified the Golden Age of Hollywood. However, this system also protected its own when scrutiny or accusations arose, which is reprehensible. The Hollywood Studio System was truly its own self-contained world that outsiders were only let into through the movies and publicity.
The film business landscape looks much different than it was during and just after the Golden Age of Hollywood. But over time, we have seen a migration back towards the ol’ system of doing things. The most recent examples of borderline antitrust infringement are Disney’s acquisition of 20th Century Fox, AT&T’s acquisition of Warner Bros. Pictures, and Comcast’s acquisition of NBC-Universal. What makes the latter two particularly interesting cases is the simple fact that both AT&T and Comcast own and operate the literal hardware in the ground and air that brings you your connection to the internet. One could read this as a form of distribution. The Disney example is more or less one of reducing the ability to equitably compete for audience dollars and the ability to create jobs. You can read more on the Disney-Fox deal in my article Out-Foxed. While block booking and price-fixing are still illegal, the overturn of the Paramount Decision does create a greater pathway to acquiring movie theatres and the ability to be more greatly vertically integrated than was possible since 1948. Interestingly, movie studios have been legally able to buy movie theatres since 1948, but because of the scrutiny and bureaucratic red tape that would come with it, it was not a practice except in the case of Disney purchasing the historic El Capitan theatre and Netflix purchasing the iconic Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre (sister theatre to the world-famous Grauman’s Chinese Theatre). Disney uses the El Capitan for most of its own premieres, but the movie theatre also shows a variety of other programming. But with this overturning, Disney could choose to only show its movies in the El Capitan, likewise with Netflix and the Egyptian Theatre.
But, so what if Netflix and Disney want to exclusively exhibit their own films in their movie palaces? And you’re right, those two locations do not significantly make a difference in the grand scheme of things; but, what this represents is a microcosm of what could happen more nationally. And that’s why many of us are fascinated by this ruling; we are both anxious and eager to see what happens in this new frontier. Maybe nothing, maybe something. But film academics have a duty to analyze the situation to inform the public of the possible outcomes.
At the time of writing this article, Disney has made no claim regarding any real interest in purchasing the struggling AMC movie theatre chain nor Regal (owned by CineWorld). That said, there is more to explore that isn’t quite as in the face of the public as purchasing theatre chains. While control is the root cause for the machine that was the studio system, the reason the government went after the big studios was in-part because the studios made it nearly impossible for independent filmmakers to get their films into theatres or land distribution deals. If the studio did not produce your film, then it would not distribute it. The inequitable competition field led the US Government to bring about the landmark antitrust case. Lack of competition or lack of an opportunity to compete is what many independent producers, directors, and other creative and technical personnel fear most moving forward. It is highly unlikely that anything major is going to happen overnight; however, the studios now have the latitude, or horizontal if you will, to test the boundaries of their vertical integration and ability to strong-arm the marketplace. Suffice it to say, the studios will be “testing the fences for weaknesses, systematically…they remember” (Robert Muldoon, Jurassic Park).
While Disney may not be presently interested in purchasing a movie theatre chain (according to the August earnings call), the three companies to watch out for are: AT&T, Amazon, and Apple. The AAA threat. Interestingly, AT&T is no stranger to monopolies or even oligopolies (like a monopoly, but when a market is controlled by a few big companies instead of one). Without going into too much detail on the U.S. v American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T) case, the antitrust case was brought against the telecom giant, owner and operator of Bell Systems. Bell Systems held a monopoly over American and Canadian phone systems, a monopoly that was held since the dawn of the telephone. The end result of the 1982 ruling brought about the breakup of the Bell Systems company into seven regional “Bell” markets. From this breakup we got seven telecom companies, each operating a particular geographic region. Interestingly, four out of the seven companies are now back under the control of AT&T. The remaining three former Bell markets are owned by Verizon and CenturyLink.
If we use the AT&T case study as a parallel model for understanding studios and the film business, we can posit ideas of what may happen in light of the recent overturn. The AT&T model bares many similarities to the Studio System model. We have a monopoly (or oligopoly) that was broken up by the US Government. Then there was a time of division; but slowly those once divested companies were bought up by the big company again, and in AT&T’s case, the original company. Full circle. What’s funny is that this parallel case study involves one of the likely players in this post-Paramount Decision world. By using the AT&T model, reason stands that a big company or two (maybe three) can and will buy up smaller companies to have a larger footprint, thus reducing competition. It happened the telephone world, it can happen in the film world. After being broken up, AT&T made many smart, seemingly benign moves in order to essentially become a phoenix that is greater than it was before its empire was broken up.
What does this mean for studios and movie theatres? It simply means that it is very likely that a major company with deep pockets will purchase movie theatre chains. Simple as that. We have seen this before in the AT&T case study. But it won’t be Disney, Universal, or even Netflix buying the theatres, it will be AT&T, Amazon, Apple, or and/or Sony. Inarguably, the first three are some of the largest, wealthiest, and most influential companies in the world, with the latter having an incredibly diversified portfolio that includes technology and more; what better way to showcase your audiovisual technology than in movie theatres??? Each of these companies has the assets necessary to acquire AMC, CineWorld (Regal), Cobb, and even Cinemark. Interestingly, AT&T, Amazon, Apple, and Sony all have investments in film and tv production. AT&T owns WarnerMedia et al., Amazon operates Amazon Studios, Apple creates original content for Apple TV+, and Sony operates Sony Entertainment et al. It is unlikely that the US Government would permit any of these companies to buy up more than one of the major movie theatre chains, but we could easily see each of the four major movie theatre players getting bought up by corporate conglomerates. While there isn’t evidence to suggest that these four corporate giants would force audiences to go to one of their theatres to see one of their movies, it is entirely possible that those corporate giants would offer additional programming (maybe certain movies primarily released on streaming services) at their company owned movie theatres. Between original and licensed/distributed content, these movie theates, tied to media conglomerates that have major studio investments, may pack the theatres with so many movies that independent filmmakers will have to see alternate means of securing distribution, be that through streaming services, independent movie theatres, or or smaller specialized chains like Studio Movie Grill and Alamo Draft House, both of which are known for catering to cinephiles, including horror fans.
In a manner of speaking, what we are looking at here is a post-modern Studio System. You’d once again have the BIG FIVE (AT&T, Apple, Amazon, Disney, and Comcast) and the LITTLE THREE (Sony, Viacom/Paramount, and Netflix). These eight companies would control the media landscape. And there will be just enough competition that it avoids any antitrust lawsuits (until it doesn’t; that’s how this goes, if you haven’t figured it out), until history repeats itself again. This new studio system will flourish for decades, but then something will happen and the government will step in and break up the companies again, most likely resulting in selling of movie theatre chains or even more sobering, movie theatres become a shadow of their former selves. It is unlikely that movie theatres will completely go away, but their purpose and role in show business may be relegated to little more than a novelty. These studios may reimagine the movie star star system, film/tv/production related unions could lose their power because of the increasing number of employees (not contractors) at movie studios, and/or there could even be more theme parks as a means to generate quick revenue to funnel back into the studio model, much like Disney and Universal Parks and Resorts do for their parent companies. Lots of job creation may happen, but these will lack in the creative latitude that many filmmakers crave.
For many independent filmmakers, the fear of the fallout from the overturn of the Paramount Decision is reduced opportunities to secure distribution deals. But it’s not only the production talent that is concerned. Writers could be greatly impacted; because, in a more heavily vertically integrated system, writers will have far fewer outlets for purchasing or licensure of their screenplays. Disney is a good example of this. Disney rarely purchases screenplays from screenwriters; their common practice is to use in-house screenwriters or commission a writer to pen a screenplay. So, if you are not IN the Disney studio system, then your chances of selling or optioning your screenplay are minimal. Since Disney owns 20th Century Fox, then this same practice carries over into that branch as well. That said, Searchlight Pictures is still a production and distribution company to which independent filmmakers and screenwriters can submit work for purchase, licensing, etc. While Disney is the easy example here, this same practice could be said of any major studio.
More vertical integration means larger companies in a world that is shrinking. This shrinking world could mean trouble for the aspiring filmmaker or screenwriter because of the lack of opportunities to make the transition from page to set to distribution. While this new world may make it more difficult for a screenwriter to sell a screenplay to a studio that is vertically integrated, the director will also face new challenges. Independent filmmakers will have to get their films bought or licensed by a major company in order to get the exposure needed to be able to develop a substantive career. Netflix has a history of being friendly to independent filmmakers (although it has more and more original programming), so an advantage to getting Netflix to buy or option your movie is that you may just be able to screen it at the Egyptian Theatre, which would greatly aid in qualifying for the Oscars or Golden Globes.
While independent filmmakers may face increasing odds against them for theatrical distribution, this post-modern Studio System could create thousands of jobs in the industry. But you will create what the studio wants you to create, which may not necessarily be the stories that you want to tell. And amidst this possible creation of jobs may be a world with far less opportunity for equitable competition for that golden statue and audience eyes.
Ryan teaches film studies and screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with or meet him in the theme parks!
Blumhouse and Amazon would like to Welcome [You] to the Blumhouse! Four films from Blumhouse hit Amazon Prime over the next couple of weeks. The Lie and Black Box release on Tuesday, October 6th followed by Nocturne and Evil Eye on Tuesday, October 13th. Each film in this anthology series explores concepts such as family, loss, and love through the lenses of redemption or destruction. The series even tackles the subjects of systemic prejudice and racism. Through the decades, the American horror film (and I say American because my area of expertise is the American horror film) has proven to be far more truthful than any conventional drama could ever hope to be in terms of exploring that which is difficult or risky to express through a typical drama or the like. There is something about horror films that beckons the audiences to find enjoyment in that which in real life would not be enjoyable—and not only see it once but repeat it over and over again. And furthermore, find the unfamiliar and grotesque fascinating to behold as what should remain hidden comes to light. The return of the repressed. Perhaps there is a deep-seated reason as to why millions of people find entertainment value in horror films. The running theme throughout Welcome to the Blumhouse appears to be Sigmund Freud’s writings on the uncanny.
Although many of the conclusions drawn by Freud have been challenged over the years, he spent a great deal of time on the uncanny; and his analysis on such has helped a great deal in understanding the psychology behind horror. The word uncanny comes from the German word unheimlich, which is literally translated as something unfamiliar. However, that which is unfamiliar is not necessarily uncanny. In particular, he was interested in the return of the repressed. And, in this return of the repressed, “other” scenes found in or separated by liminal spaces, to which we do not have direct access, would reveal themselves. It is this revelation that is what Freud terms the uncanny. This theory is an explicitly aesthetic inquiry regarding what in art (or life) produces sensations of dread and horror, repulsion, and a return to such unpleasurable sensations. There are many elements or groups of elements that Freud deemed as uncanny. Each one is burdened to exceed intellectual uncertainty in order to fit the definition of uncanny as laid out by Freud.
Freud claims that the source of the uncanny in literature is the recurrence of something long forgotten and repressed. However, not everything that returns from the psychic depths of repression is uncanny. The mere return of repressed feelings and experiences is not sufficient for the uncanny to occur. It requires something repressed having returned but represented by an unexpected and outside the realm of reality. This is easily accomplished in literature (and by extension, movies, and plays) because fantasy is different from reality. Just because something works as uncanny in a work of literature doesn’t mean it can work in real-life as well. Within literature, if the author makes a pretense to realism, then he or she opens the door to supplying the story with the uncanny. Often times, the uncanny in literature and film is the projection of the psyche of the central character on another object or person combined with a warped view of the objective and subjective of a given situation. It’s like something within the fictional world creeps into the real world.
The first film in the upcoming Welcome to the Blumhouse is The Lie (2018). Originally a limited release in 2018, The Lie is the first film in the series, but to be perfectly honest, you can skip it. In short, it was boring, lacking in any characters that you could root for, and incredibly predictable. Not sure why Blumhouse and Amazon decided that this was to be the first film because the run the risk of customers not wanting to see the other three because of the lack luster start. To call it a horror or even horror-adjacent film is a bit of a stretch. For all intents and purposes, The Lie is a heavy family drama in the veins of an early A24 picture. Even though I did not care for the storytelling, I won’t venture into spoiler territory. The story is about how a lie consumes and tears apart a family and friendships. While The Lie suffers from uninteresting storytelling, it does boast some solid performances. If you enjoy analyzing performances, then you will find enjoyable elements in this first of the four films in the Welcome to the Blumhouse series.
The second film in the anthology series is Black Box. And I greatly enjoyed this one! While I feel that it would make for a more effective story had it been a hour-long Black Mirror or Twilight Zone episode, it definitely skewers far closer to horror that the previous film. That said, Black Box is still not horror, but one could make the argument that it is horror-adjacent. Definitely much more in the veins of a science-fiction thriller, but it contains more horror elements than The Lie. The two lead performances by Mamoudou Athie and TV icon Phylicia Rashad are excellent! The plot execution is held back a little by the unjustifiable slow pacing. It feels as though it began as an “hour-long” idea, but was inflated to fill a “feature film” runtime. Not to say that it wasn’t engaging–to was! But I do feel that the story would’ve been just as impactful, if not more so, had it been a.bit more streamlined and lean. What I appreciate most about this story is the exploration of the boundaries of ethics and science, and that liminal space between the two. Athie plays Nolan, a single father of his precocious little girl following a tragic car accident that killed his wife and left his memories scattered. He is perpetually on a journey to regain the memories he lost while balancing how to be a father and take care of himself at the same time, not to mention working through the trauma of losing his wife. Rashad plays Dr. Brooks, a neuroscientist that has developed a cutting edge technology that seeks, identified, and visualizes repressed memories, and brings them to the surface of the mind for the patient to deal with. Under Dr. Brooks care, Nolan is able to explore the depths of his repressed consciousness and memories in order to regain that which was lost after the accident. Unfortunately, tis procedure has a nasty side effects of drumming up past trauma that Nolan has great difficulty reconciling. Even though there are moments that this feels like a slow-burn, you will be vested in these characters and will be on the edge of your seat as Nolan faces the demons of his mind on his journey to recapture what was lost due to the tragic car accident.
Come back next week for reviews of Nocturne and Evil Eye.
Ryan teaches screenwriting and American cinema at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Ryan is also the creator of the Four’s a Crowdsitcom podcast now streaming on your favorite podcatcher. Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with or meet him in the theme parks!
This is the second to last part for this series of excerpts from my peer-reviewed book and research study. So, if you’ve enjoyed reading and following, head over to Amazon to order a copy of the complete study with lots of added material from the focus groups and interviews.
Away from hustle and bustle and bright lights of Hollywood, past the palm treelined streets and white sand beaches of Florida, and beyond the Roman ruins on a century-old Italian studio lot is another example of the convergence of cinema and theme parks. Movie Park Germany is a cinema-based theme park in Bottrop-Kirchhellen. It “is a unique theme park, which is devoted entirely to movies. The former Warner Bros Movie World has six theme areas and more than 40 attractions and shows. It will not take long before you feel like a movie star or cartoon hero!” (About Us, 2014).
Much in the vein of Universal Studios Florida, Movie Park Germany blends both the benefits of an amusement park with movie-based themes throughout the whole park. Its motto is “Wow! I’m in the Movies.” According to the website, “Our visitors will not only have the opportunity to meet well-known series Heroes but also get to enjoy first class entertainment like an action-packed stunt show as well as two song and dance shows. For those guests who like it a bit more spooky, the park transforms itself at sunset into an extraordinaire chamber of horrors. In short: There’s a personal highlight for everyone!” (Movie Park Germany, 2014). Unlike Universal Studios parks which have a Halloween theme for two months a year, Movie Park Germany holds on to the very cinema theory that birthed out of Germany and found its way to Hollywood—German Expressionism. Some of the first movies were horror movies, and it is refreshing to see that this park is holding on to its horror heritage throughout the year (Movie Park Germany, 2014).
Clearly, the idea to create synergy between cinema and theme parks is at the forefront of media conglomerates and business holdings companies. It takes the best of 43 what each has to offer respectively and combines them to create a business entity that has the power to entertain, educate, immerse, and inspire all at the same time. For the guest this means that they can experience the magic of movies and TV in dynamic ways, and for the owners, this means unparalleled cash flows to fund movies, reinvest in the parks, or fund other ventures. But, one set of questions remains. How should a media company choose to theme the parks, what rides to make based on movies, and should a theme park attraction be in the minds of studio executives when looking at screenplays for future movies? At the end of the day, studio executives/media moguls who also run theme park divisions need to know what connections and moves to make in order to assure the mutual success of both the movies and the theme parks.
The final part in this series will be uploaded next week! It will include themes learned from the empirical research method used in this study. The focus groups were located in Florida, New York, Ohio, and California.
In order to return to the beginning of this series, click HERE!