Being one of the most successful and ubiquitous authors ever allows Stephen King a certain amount of freedom to explore just about every corner of the cultural sphere. In addition to writing dozens of novels, 10 short story and novella collections, and five works of nonfiction, he’s collaborated on comics, penned an unproduced libretto, acted, narrated audiobooks, and even played in a band, The Rock Bottom Remainders. His work has similarly spread its tendrils throughout Hollywood, manifesting in everything from films and TV series to miniseries and shorts, and that’s not even including the “dollar babies” that he grants to young, starry-eyed auteurs. Many of those works have taken on lives of their own as well—both Children Of The Corn and The Mangler,neither of which resemble King’s source material, have spawned numerous sequels.
All of this is to say that any definitive ranking of King’s work is fruitless: There are just too many detours. So with It Chapter Two forcing us to reflect on the breadth of King’s dominion, we decided to pinpoint our favorite adaptations across several different mediums. That includes films, TV shows, and miniseries, obviously, but also his anthology contributions and even the derivative titles his work’s directly inspired. (We considered short films, but, once you factor in dollar babies, that’s simply too much content.) Considering how, let’s say, notorious some of these adaptations are, it would be a disservice to not also highlight the weirdest—not worst—of them as well. The distinction is important, lest you be left wondering why Maximum Overdrive is nowhere to be found below.
Stephen King will forever be remembered as the “master of horror,” but there’s a reason a hefty handful of the best adaptations of his work—The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, Gerald’s Game—skew more toward drama than genre. Because for every bloodthirsty car or haunted cell phone, there’s a heartfelt ode to innocence and imagination—just look at his most enduring work, It, which remains the most elegant, impactful intertwining of his gruesomeness and sentimentality. King’s horrors have always struggled to translate well on screen, though, and Stand By Me, a coming-of-age story set in the summer of 1960, benefits from not having to engage with that side of the author. Director Rob Reiner zeroes in on two things: character and atmosphere. Four pre-teens, each lacking in healthy role models, take rumors of an unattended dead body as an excuse to walk a rail line and, in doing so, forge a bond that’s as fleeting as it is timeless. Reiner allows these bonds to breathe across moments pure, scary, traumatic, and agonizing, and his young cast are the perfect mix of tender and reckless—River Phoenix and Corey Feldman, specifically, are tremendous. But Reiner’s nostalgia is as rich as King’s—the two are roughly the same age—and his work captures the wonder and danger of being young, unmoored, and reliant on friends whose importance you won’t grasp until you’ve long grown apart. [Randall Colburn]
If you’re in the market for shit blowing up, or dudes getting chopped in half, there’s very little wrong with Paul Michael Glaser’s The Running Man, which—even before you get to the opera-singing, dune buggy-driving supervillain, or a script filled with even-for-Arnie-high levels of Arnold Schwarzenegger quippiness—earns its place in the cheesy action movie pantheon with Richard Dawson’s brilliant heel turn on his own smiling-through-the-anger game show host persona. But Steven E. de Souza’s script is an objectively off-model adaptation of King’s original dystopian novel, which, like all of the books published under his Richard Bachman pseudonym, finds the author at his most bleak and blatantly un-cheesy, bordering on nihilistic. It’s mostly a matter of tone, with King’s prose emphasizing the mundanity of the titular lethal game show and none of the comic book bombast the film so gleefully indulges in. Rather than an Austrian weightlifter, the book’s Ben Richards is a scrawny, scrappy father who willingly signs up for The Running Man in order to secure medicine for his ailing daughter. (Sort of a modern-day GoFundMe campaign, but with guns and a nation-wide manhunt.) Similarly, his main opponents aren’t a squad of costumed Mortal Kombat rejects, but regular citizens and cops hoping to pick up a little cash for themselves by ratting the runner out or gunning him down on America’s pollution-clogged streets. It’s an altogether grimmer, more “realistic” take on an ostensibly similar story, with the most telling difference arriving with the endings: Rather than making out with María Conchita Alonso and kicking a Family Feud host’s ass, Book Richards only manages to eke out a victory so Pyrrhic it barely even qualifies for the name, a far grimmer (and increasingly unfilmable, to modern eyes) conclusion that Arnold never would have stood for. [William Hughes]
To say the 1990 TV miniseries of It looks dated is to undersell it. The overlit sets, clunky editing, and who’s who of ’80s TV actors in the lead roles all mark it as being of a certain era. But what makes it so memorable—and such a successful adaptation of its tricky source material—lies primarily in the casting of its malevolent antagonist. Tim Curry’s Pennywise remains iconic after all these years because the actor captured the warped sadistic spirit of the supernatural clown. He could be genuinely goofy and playful, in a manner that actually went some way toward showing why kids fell for the act—which is what made his heel-turns to menacing and saw-toothed so much more disturbing. In addition to successfully evoking the nostalgic hue of the ’50s-set portion of the novel, this adaptation remains a source of nightmares for every former kid that happily tuned in to be scared shitless. Curry made the clownish evil into a source of fascination—he pulls you in, just like his magnetic alter ego. [Alex McLevy]
Honestly, what isn’t “WTF” about Bag Of Bones? It opens with a scene of a woman being mowed down by a bus to rival Meet Joe Black’s infamous auto accident, and ends with Anika Noni Rose slapping Pierce Brosnan around in the guise of a vengeful tree. That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of mind-numbing moments in between. Time moves oddly in Bag Of Bones, which suffers from baggy pacing, a chaotic structure, and strange internal laws of physics that transform all of the jump scares—a fiery truck explosion, a sniper’s bullet flying through a window mid-conversation, a fucking raccoon falling out of a ceiling—into giggle-inducing non sequiturs. Then there’s Brosnan’s performance, full of misplaced intensity that original A.V. Club reviewer Zack Handlen described as “looking like he’s going to burp, fart, and sneeze simultaneously every ten minutes or so.” All this garish goofiness turn relatively minor storytelling tics and narrative crutches from King’s original novel into glaring absurdities, dragging its source material into the waterlogged madness along with it. [Katie Rife]
If there’s a reason Mr. Mercedes has yet to puncture the zeitgeist, it’s probably due to it being relegated to the Audience Network, a portal exclusive to DirectTV. That said, DirectTV’s done well by the show in terms of giving it the chance to breathe across multiple seasons, with the third season premiering next week. David E. Kelley’s smart, surprisingly gruesome adaptation of King’s sorta-supernatural detective trilogy—originally published between 2014 and 2016—improves upon the books in myriad ways, namely via an on-point cast that includes Brendan Gleeson, Harry Treadaway, and rising stars like Jharrel Jerome (When They See Us) and Justine Lupe (Succession). Kelley plays fast and loose with King’s narrative, restructuring the books’ timeline and smartly elaborating on the journeys of compelling, underused supporting players like Breeda Wool’s Lou Linklatter. Toying with King’s template is dangerous, but there’s a thoughtfulness to Kelley’s approach that preserves the book’s hard-boiled spirit while carving out its own narrative. If this thing ever hits streaming, it’s going to gain a whole slew of new fans. [Randall Colburn]
Stephen King’s Under The Dome is about how the big, human problems of a small town get accentuated and twisted by the sudden appearance of a giant dome with extraterrestrial origins that cuts the town off from the outside world. CBS’ Under The Dome, despite sharing a title, some character names, and a giant dome with extraterrestrial origins, might as well be a completely different story. Part of that was by necessity, since the show was a surprisingly big hit and had to fill three whole seasons of plot, but it did that by diving headfirst into needlessly complex sci-fi origins for the dome and a race of aliens with the ability to control people. It had a post-Breaking Bad Dean Norris as the villain and noted comic writer Brian K. Vaughan as showrunner, but it also had a mountain of mythology about alien eggs and mini-domes and underground caves that needlessly complicated a story about the residents of a small town becoming increasingly unhinged and killing each other. At least we’ll always have the cow that got split in half. [Sam Barsanti]
As with all the impish spawn of EC Comics, both the anthology series and the 1990 movie version of Tales From The Darkside have a punchy comic-book sensibility that give their tales of ghastly terror a larger-than-life feel. That proves to be an asset for “The Cat From Hell,” a segment from the film based on King’s 1977 short story of the same name. Sometimes, King adaptations stumble by trying to present his more outlandish ideas—like, say, a cat clawing its way down a human’s throat like a boa constrictor in reverse, grotesquely turning the man into a human puppet as it goes—at face value. Within the heightened universe of Darkside, however, the idea of a black cat with a blood grudge makes total sense, allowing director John Harrison to extract both amusement and disgust from the premise. Casting Academy Award nominee William Hickey alongside New York Dolls frontman David Johansen, and then having Hickey give the more outrageous of the two performances, deepens the interplay between nightmarish horror and comic-book kitsch, for a King cocktail that goes down mighty smooth. [Katie Rife]
WTF: “The Lonesome Death Of Jordy Verrill,” Creepshow (1982)
As far as King adaptations go, this Creepshowvignette is actually pretty faithful; certainly, it hits more story beats from its source material, the author’s 1976 Lovecraft-but-with-plants riff “Weeds,” than most of its cinematic ilk. No, the WTF-ness of “Jordy Verrill” comes almost solely from the man cast as its titular cash-hungry, sense-poor yokel: One Stephen Edwin King. As far as acting goes, King is, well, one of the most successful novelists of the 20th and 21st centuries—which is to say that there is much that should be overtly horrifying about “Jordy,” as a series of dumb, desperate decisions swiftly promise to doom the entire human race beneath a carpet of hostile foliage. But, in practice, there’s nothing a bushel of space seeds can do, Constant Reader, that’s even remotely as horrifying as watching one of America’s most respected authors—equipped with a cornpone accent, wildly rolling eyes, and some make-up effects that must have cost George Romero upwards of $9.95 at a local party supply store—attempt to convey either comedy or horror while screaming about his alien-weed-infested dick. King has continued to cameo in various projects over the years, but “Jordy” is his only starring role. Thank god for that. [William Hughes]
Brett Leonard called his 1992 adaptation of Stephen King’s bite-sized “The Lawnmower Man” one of the most “radical adaptations ever,” but we’re just gonna go ahead and say it’s not an adaptation at all. To be fair, it’s technically not, as King detached himself from the project after suing for the “misleading and deceptive use” of his name. He was right to do so—Leonard’s script, originally titled Cyber God, was retrofitted to the IP with, well, a lawnmower man and little else. But Leonard’s The Lawnmower Man somehow emerged more interesting than the bizarre story it tried to exploit. Its imperfect tale of a scientist’s journey to boost the IQ of a dull gardener via VR still has something compelling to say about virtual worlds and their impact on the human mind and personality. And the movie’s distinctive digital effects, while dated, remain aesthetically interesting in an age where what’s digital often strives only to be more lifelike. The Lawnmower Man’s virtual landscape is silly, sure, but it’s also singular, composed of odd geometric flourishes and religious iconography. It’s almost enough to make up for the weird cyber-fucking. [Randall Colburn]
Fulfilling the dreams of everyone who ever thought, “What Carrie needed was less psychological intrigue and more late ’90s nu-metal,” The Rage: Carrie 2takes everything dark and intense about its progenitor and finds the campiest possible reworking of it. Justifying its narrative logic under the wafer-thin veneer that new protagonist Rachel (Emily Bergl) and the original Carrie White are half-sisters from the same father—thereby granting her what are now officially designated as hereditary powers of telekinesis, we guess—the movie proceeds to deliver the same beats, in hilariously extreme manner. (“This is a Carrie who gets biz-zay—consistently and thoroughly!” the film’s execs presumably uttered at some point.) To wit: Rachel’s only friend (Mena Suvari) dies early on in a manner so over the top, it could be its own Lifetime movie; Rachel snaps after a sex tape of her first time gets broadcast at a party; oh, and the final explosion of her powers? Explaining it with “Home Improvement’s Zachary Ty Bryan gets his dick shot off with a harpoon gun” doesn’t quite do it justice. The title makes more sense if you imaginable someone yelling “Rage!” like they’re in an old Surge commercial. Rarely has the description “stupidly fun” emphasized the stupid quite so much. [Alex McLevy]
Let’s get this out of the way first: This is not a complete recounting of every single pop culture reference inOnce Upon A Time… In Hollywood. To claim as much would be hubris. No, this is simply the best The A.V. Club could do after two back-to-back viewings of Quentin Tarantino’s latest, the second of which was devoted wholly to noting every movie poster, real-life character, radio ad, and name drop we could catch. It was humbling—and really enjoyable.
Tarantino’s films always double as cryptic scavenger hunts, maps of the writer-director’s cinema-obsessed psyche where each landmark is as lovingly and deliberately placed as the monthly programming at Tarantino’s New Beverly Cinema—which Tarantino makes a point of curating himself, even when he’s in the middle of shooting one of his own movies. Asked if he’s worried if younger viewers won’t “get” all of his references in Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood in a new interview with Time, Tarantino says, “it bums me out that [younger viewers] don’t know more than they do,” but “you don’t have to know everybody I’m talking about here. Every film book I ever read, I expected the guy to know more than me.” But he encourages the millennial crowd to look up unfamiliar elements of the movie to enhance the experience; “I’m Mr. Look Up Things, constantly, as I’m watching stuff,” he adds.
Now, we have more clues to help with this obsessive-compulsive endeavor than previous generations did flipping through their film encyclopedias. Even a director who’s famously adverse to social media can’t avoid the internet entirely in 2019, and Tarantino breaks down the New Bev’s July 2019 schedule—all films that relate to Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood in one way or another—on a three-hour episode of the theater’s Pure Cinema Podcast. That’s recommended if you want to get deeper into the cinematic references in the film.
We are, for the purposes of this piece, assuming that you know who Sharon Tate was, what happened when Charles Manson commanded his followers to kill in August 1969, who Roman Polanski was at the time of the murders, and who he is today. If you’re not familiar with any of these people, the “Charles Manson’s Hollywood” series on the You Must Remember This podcast is a detailed, extremely well-told recounting of the historical background for the film’s depiction of Tate, Polanski, Manson, and his “Family.” There have also been multiple biographical documentaries about Bruce Lee, who’s played by Mike Moh in the film and about whom we’re also assuming you have at least a passing familiarity. Of those, we like Bruce Lee: A Warrior’s Journey, which was released in 2000.
With all that being said, hop into the way, way back machine, kiddies, because we’re taking a trip to Hollywood, 1969.
Hullabaloo / “Green Door”
Rick’s failure to get with the times is underlined in his appearance on this rock ’n’ roll variety show, one of two youthquake aftershocks that hit primetime during the 1964-65 television season. (The other being ABC’s Shindig.) NBC’s version played host to The Rolling Stones, The Supremes, and the miniskirted dancers who shimmy and bop around DiCaprio in Once Upon A Time…, but Hullabaloo was equally stacked behind the scenes—future T.A.M.I. Show director and Pee-wee’s Playhouse producer Steve Binder set its frenetic visual template, and Beatles impresario Brian Epstein provided a steady stream of British Invasion bookings. In front of the show’s distinctive pileup of Cooper Black text, DiCaprio sweats his way through an off-key rendition of “Green Door,” the novelty record that ruled the Billboard Top 100 in November of 1956. The Cole Porter standard “Don’t Fence Me In” was also considered, but “Green Door” is a better fit—why shouldn’t has-been Rick Dalton croon about being kept up all night by the noise emanating from a swinging club that won’t grant him admission? [Erik Adams]
The Rick Dalton guest-shot résumé
When Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino) rattles off a list of shows Rick has or could’ve guested on, it’s a whirlwind tour of mid-to-late-’60s action-adventure TV: NBC’s two-season update of the Tarzan mythos, the Irwin Allen forced-perspective spectacle of Land Of The Giants, na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na Batman. But with the exception of the pilot Rick’s lending his name recognition to, Lancer, there’s not a Western among them. Shows like the fictional Bounty Law were on the verge of being put out to pasture in 1969, a once-dominant genre reduced almost entirely to the small but steadfast posse of Gunsmoke, Bonanza, The Virginian, and High Chaparral. Wasn’t much call for a gunfighter those days—good thing Rick hung onto that 14 Fists Of McCluskey flamethrower. [Erik Adams]
Jay Sebring is mostly portrayed as Sharon Tate’s loyal lapdog in Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood, with only the briefest mention of his career as a hairdresser towards the end of the film where Jay clarifies, “no, I get a thousand dollars a day.” Sebring, who taught himself to cut hair while serving in the Navy during the Korean War, was the premier hairstylist for Hollywood leading men in the late 1960s, counting Kirk Douglas, Paul Newman, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Marlon Brando, Henry Fonda, Steve McQueen, and Bruce Lee—who really did give him martial arts lessons—among his regular clients. He was also the inspiration for consummate ladies’ man George Roundy in Shampoo (1975); Sebring’s regular client Warren Beatty came up with the idea after learning that Sebring had a private entrance at his salon that provided perfect cover for afternoon trysts as well as A-list makeovers. [Katie Rife]
The “king of cool” himself. In Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood, action star Steve McQueen(Damian Lewis) pines at a Playboy Mansion party that he never stood a chance with Sharon Tate—who, according to McQueen, appeared to prefer shorter, less handsome men than himself. Much like Rick Dalton, McQueen got his start on television as a bounty hunter with a heart of gold on CBS’s Wanted Dead Or Alive, which premiered in 1957. (His second act as a movie star was far more successful, however.) In Tarantino’s Hollywood, McQueen and Dalton go up for many of the same parts, including the Oscar-nominated The Great Escape (1963), prompting Dalton to imagine himself in the starring role. [Mike Vanderbilt]
The Mamas And The Papas
The counterculture that Rick and Cliff detest, Sharon, Jay, and Roman hang on the fringes of, and Charles Manson exploited found one of its widest-reaching expressions in the music of The Mamas And The Papas. The group’s richly harmonized blend of folk, rock, flower-power euphoria, and bad-trip melancholy hangs over Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood like a period-appropriate smog: “Straight Shooter” plays on the radio and the Tate-Polanski piano, and Jose Feliciano’s cover of “California Dreamin’” soundtracks the conclusion of the film’s winter chapters. The “mamas” half of the band appears on screen, too: Vocalists Michelle Phillips and Cass Elliot are the friends who greet Sharon upon her arrival at the Playboy Mansion. They were close enough in real life that Phllips’ husband—and Mamas And The Papas bandleader—John Phillips was briefly considered a suspect in the Tate murders. [Erik Adams]
Paul Revere & The Raiders/ Terry Melcher
In the late ’60s, Paul Revere & The Raiders had a string of Top 40 garage-pop hits—including “Kicks,” known as one of the first anti-drug anthems in popular music. (Lead singer Mark Lindsay contends he thought it was “about how it’s not as easy to have fun as it used to be.”) Lindsay, Revere producer Terry Melcher, and actress Candice Bergen moved in to 10050 Cielo Dr. in late ’66, and in ’68 Charles Manson attended a meeting with the producer, facilitated by Beach Boy Dennis Wilson, at the house. (Manson, a failed musician, plied Wilson with LSD and sex all summer to get that meeting.) Melcher declined to sign Manson, but considered working with him on a documentary about his music, until abandoning the project after witnessing a brawl with a drunken stuntman at Spahn Ranch. Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood features Sharon Tate, who by February 1969 had moved into Melcher and Lindsay’s old digs, grooving to “Good Thing;” the band’s pure pop sound was falling out of favor for edgier fare from the likes of The Doors by 1969— thus Sharon teasing Jay Sebring that she’d tell Jim Morrison (a client at Sebring’s salon) that Jay digs Paul Revere & The Raiders. When Manson comes by shortly afterwards asking where “Terry and Candice” are, it’s a desperate gambit to try to get the record producer to give him one more chance. [Katie Rife/Mike Vanderbilt]
Lancer: Sam Wanamaker/James Stacy/Wayne Maunder
Rick’s guest spot on the pilot for Lancer—a real Western TV series that ran on Tuesdays at 7:30 on CBS from 1968 to 1970—is littered with real-life figures. The flashy, capelet-clad director who wants Rick Dalton to bring some of that Hells Angels’ counterculture flair to his role is Sam Wanamaker, a real actor and director who actually did helm one episode of Lancer. James Stacy, the series lead portrayed by Timothy Olyphant, really did star in the show, whose “half-brothers defending the family ranch” conceit solidified its status as a second-rate Bonanza. Wayne Maunder, portrayed by Luke Perry in the movie, co-starred as the half-brother. In fact, the most heavily fictionalized detail of Rick’s Lancer experience involves the child actress Dalton’s character kidnaps on the episode, as the family’s female ward on the actual Lancer was played by 22-year-old Elizabeth Baur. [Katie Rife]
As Tarantino outlines on the Pure Cinema Podcast, the character of Rick Dalton was informed by a handful of real-life ‘60s screen stars, and Fabian is a big one. Unlike the warbling Rick, Fabian Forte is an excellent singer, and got his start as a heartthrob and crooner on American Bandstand in the late ‘50s before making the transition to acting in the early-to-mid-’60s. Much like Rick’s big-screen belly flop, Fabian wasn’t able to sustain his previous level of celebrity as a movie star, and after a handful of early successes he was banished to B-movies and TV guest spots—like his appearance on the primetime Western The Virginian, on the set of which Fabian is in a (fictional) accident that forces him to drop out of the (fictional) WWII action flick The 14 Fists Of McLusky, allowing Rick Dalton to step in in his place. [Katie Rife]
The Wrecking Crew
When Hollywood got ahold of Donald Hamilton’s series of Matt Helm novels, the studios took the literary spy and, knowing there was no real way to compete with the James Bond juggernaut of the ‘60s, turned him into a parody of the character—and the genre. A sort of proto-Austin Powers, Dean Martin’s Matt Helm was more swinging than his British counterpart, and infinitely sillier. Frankly, 1969’s The Wrecking Crew, the Matt Helm moviethat Sharon Tate goes to see in Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood, is kind of a drag. But Tate is a technicolor wonder in groovy ‘60s ensembles, and steals the show by showcasing both comedic chops and karate chops. (Bruce Lee really did assist in choreographing the fight sequences.) [Mike Vanderbilt]
The Mercenary/Sergio Corbucci
The other movie playing at the Bruin Westwood on February 9, 1969 ties in to both Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood and Tarantino’s larger filmography. This (actually quite good and worth tracking down) 1968 spaghetti Western was directed by Sergio Corbucci, the real-life director of such classics of the subgenre as Django and The Great Silence; within the film, he’s also the director of the fictional Rick Dalton vehicle Nebraska Jim, about which the Narrator says Rick “exist[ed] quite nicely” among Corbucci’s coterie of rough-and-tumble antiheroes. A snippet of music from Ennio Morricone’s score for The Mercenary, the stirring “L’Arena,” was also featured in Kill Bill, Vol. 2. [Katie Rife]
Valley Of The Dolls
It’s ironic that Sharon Tate isn’t recognized in this movie for what would wind up becoming her most famous role: Jennifer in Valley Of The Dolls. In the top-selling novel of 1966, Jacqueline Susann crafted the trashy-yet-epic story of three beautiful young starlets and their tumultuous Hollywood paths: Neely O’Hara (played by Patty Duke in the movie), Anne Welles (Peyton Place cast member Barbara Parkins), and Jennifer North, “the one who ends up doing dirty movies,” played by Tate. The part of Jennifer, the gorgeous blonde bombshell who only wants someone to love her for who she is, not what she looks like, was reportedly based on Marilyn Monroe and Carole Landis, both actresses who eventually died of barbiturate overdose. The movie version of Valley Of The Dolls was a box-office success, but was so panned by critics (it’s often included on lists of the worst films of all time) that it eventually became a cult hit as a camp classic. After Tate’s murder in 1969, Valley Of The Dolls was re-released. [Gwen Ihnat]
Squeaky Fromme and George Spahn’s appointment viewing has some basis in truth: The FBI (“A Quinn Martin/Warner Bros. production!”) and the long-lived oater Bonanza aired back-to-back on ABC and NBC, respectively, on Sunday nights until 1971. [Erik Adams]
The Deep Cuts
Love, Hate, And Dishonor
The first of several ads that play over the radio in Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood is for Love, Hate, And Dishonor, the American TV title for the jazzy 1965 Italian murder mystery The Possessed. The film’s significant not only in the fact that it stars Peter Baldwin—another American actor slumming it abroad in European genre movies— but also because Tarantino first saw many of the films that make up Once Upon A Time’s collective unconscious in their TV airings, as he elaborates on the Pure Cinema Podcast. [Katie Rife]
Clint Ritchie/Henry Wilcoxon
Tanner is Rick Dalton’s big-screen Western triumph in Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood, but brief insert shots of Marvin Schwarz watching the movie in his home theater turn up the names of two real-life actors who play second banana to the fictional Rick. The first is Clint Ritchie, a North Dakota native and studio player who started his career on the CBS cowboy series Wild Wild West before being set adrift after Twentieth Century Fox released him from his contract in the early ‘70s. The second is the distinguished English actor Henry Wilcoxon, who enjoyed a long and loyal partnership with director Cecil B. DeMille in the ‘30s, ‘40s,’ and ‘50s. By the late ‘60s, however, Wilcoxon had been reduced to appearing in guest starring roles on primetime TV, much like another fading star we could name. [Katie Rife]
Musso & Frank
Any history of Hollywood’s oldest restaurant—and there’s been a lot of them on the occasion of its centennial—drops enough names to be mistaken for Tarantino dialogue. The steak-and-martini joint is where Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio engaged in PDA, Bukowski got blotto, and Jon Hamm pretended Don Draper was at Sardi’s. Once Upon A Time In Hollywood’s period setting required plenty turn-back-the-clock touch-ups on L.A. landmarks, but not here. The red-leather-and-mahogany decor, the jacketed servers, and most of the menu have practically been preserved in amber. Any night at Musso’s could look like 2019, 1949, or, for one fateful, Tarantino-directed schmooze fest over whiskey sours and bloody marys, 1969. [Erik Adams]
“Bill Cosby, Nancy Sinatra, and Tom Smothers”
As Cliff drives up Cielo Drive, he hears a radio ad announcing guest stars like Bill Cosby, Nancy Sinatra, and the Smothers Brothers on an unknown variety show. An entertainment holdover from the vaudeville days, the variety show was trying to retain relevancy as the ’60s drew to a close. Irreverent upstarts like Rowan And Martin’s Laugh-In and Tom and Dick Smothers attempted to breathe new life into the old format, while Bob Hope’s never-ending series of specials was steeped in the nostalgia of old-school Hollywood. So this list of guest stars tracks the industry’s forward-looking transition that Rick is so desperately trying to fight. Bill Cosby and Tom Smothers are the future, while Nancy Sinatra is an interesting bridge in the middle: She’s Hollywood royalty thanks to her father Frank, but was ready to kick up her own go-go boots in hits like “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’.” [Gwen Ihnat]
The Illustrated Man
Rod Steiger became the human canvas upon which three Ray Bradbury short stories are inked in this cinematic adaptation of the science-fiction author’s 1951 collection. Once Upon A Time digs up one of the film’s radio spots, but its theatrical trailer has its own Tarantino connection: It’s structured an awful lot like Edgar Wright’s contribution to the Grindhouse trailer reel, Don’t. [Erik Adams]
Romeo & Juliet
The 1968 film Romeo And Juliet is shown on two marquees in Once Upon A Time…first in February and then in August, where the marquee exclaims, “8th month in theaters!” Many movies had been made of Shakespeare’s tragedy about the doomed young lovers, but Franco Zeffirelli’s film, released in October 1968, was a straight-up sensation; Roger Ebert called it “the most exciting film of Shakespeare ever made.” Zeffirelli broke with tradition by casting unknown teenage actors Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey to play the titular pair, filming in stunningly picturesque Italy. The film’s prominent placement here could be a reference to the tragedy of the actual Manson murders, but also a sly wink to star Leonardo DiCaprio’s younger glory days, when he played Romeo in Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 version. [Gwen Ihnat]
Lady In Cement/Pretty Poison
The double feature playing at the Van Nuys Drive-In the night Cliff comes home for some mac and cheese reflects the changes in the film industry that have Rick and Cliff so out of sorts: The first is Lady In Cement, a Miami-set thriller marketed towards middle-aged Playboy subscribers fossilizing at a rate similar to that of the film’s star, Frank Sinatra. The second is Pretty Poison, which, despite starring the past-his-prime Anthony Perkins, catered to the edgy sensibilities of New Hollywood with a torrid tale of an ex-con and a disaffected teenager caught in a sexually charged folie a deux. (Longtime Tarantino fans will also recognize the brassy trains of “Funky Fanfare,” the snippet of music that National Screen Service used to mark the end of the pre-show and beginning of the feature throughout this period.) As for the drive-in itself, it hung in there longer than any other outdoor theater in the San Fernando Valley before being torn down to make way for a high school in the late ‘90s. The school’s mascot is The Vaqueros, a tribute to the cowboy on the drive-in’s famous sign whose bucking bronco lorded over the lot for nearly 50 years. [Katie Rife]
As Cliff arrives back at his trailer on February 8, we very pointedly see vocalist Robert Goulet performing on his TV screen, singing “MacArthur Park.” And Goulet did appear that night in an ABC show called The Hollywood Palace, a midseason variety show replacement for The Jerry Lewis Show. Featuring Goulet is a very deliberate choice: he’s like the musical version of DiCaprio’s character Rick Dalton. By this point, the high point of Goulet’s career—playing Lancelot on Broadway opposite Julie Andrews and Richard Burton in Camelot—was also years behind him, and the rest of his career primarily consisted of guest-starring TV appearances on variety shows like this one, dramas like Police Story, and a variety of game shows (although he did get his own special in 1970). Jimmy Webb’s 1968 hit “MacArthur Park” was a favorite of Goulet’s, a detailed account of the end of a relationship; perhaps Tarantino appreciates the song’s poignant but picturesque descriptive elements, like the old men playing Chinese checkers and the cake getting left out in the rain. [Gwen Ihnat]
With those striking blue eyes and iconic mole, there’s no mistaking Anne Francis on the pin-up poster that adorns Cliff Booth’s Van Nuys trailer. Best known for her role in Forbidden Planet—which earned her a nod in“Science Fiction, Double Feature” from The Rocky Horror Picture Show—Francis appeared on most of the big television shows of the day, from The Untouchables to The Twilight Zone. In 1965, she was cast as private investigator Honey West, a show that,despite running for only one season, quickly developed a cult following. Produced by Aaron Spelling, West was an American answer to the British Avengers and featured Francis as one of the first female private investigators on TV, cruising around in a bitchin’ convertible Shelby Cobra with her pet ocelot. [Mike Vanderbilt]
Three In The Attic
Released in December of 1968, Three In The Attic is still playing in February 1969 in Tarantino’s Hollywood. Attic stars Christopher Jones as Paxton Quigley, a ladies’ man dividing his time between three girlfriends; when the girls discover Quigley’s deception, they lock him up in an attic and do with him whatever they want (oh no!). Roger Ebert called Attic “a frustrating movie because it could have been so good and occasionally is so good and yet it finally loses its nerve and collapses into a routine gutless exploitation picture.” That last bit is to be expected—it was released by American International Pictures, after all. [Mike Vanderbilt]
Cliff has a copy of the February 8, 1969 issue of TV Guide in his trailer, the cover of which puts Mount Rushmore heads, scuba-fin feet, and pipe-cleaner legs on Martin Landau, Peter Graves, and their Mission: Impossible co-stars. The caricatures are the unmistakable work of the late Jack Davis, whose illustrations and designs enlivened newsstands, movie-theater lobbies, and the animated productions of Rankin/Bass throughout the latter half of the 20th century. In the world of Once Upon A Time, he even took on the star of Bounty Law, giving Rick’s rec-room decor faux-Davis renditions of Jake Cahill fronting TV Guide and the storied publication that claimed the cartoonist as one of its “Usual Gang of Idiots”: MAD Magazine. (The cherry on top of that cover: The “ECCH!” flag issuing from cartoon Rick’s sidearm.) [Erik Adams]
The Golden Stallion
A poster of the 1949 Roy Rogers Western The Golden Stallion isn’t just displayed in Rick’s house because it’s his favorite genre. Quentin Tarantino is fascinated by this little-known film and its director, William Witney; it’s also the movie playing in the background when the Bride confronts Bill in Kill Bill, Volume 2. Witney had a long Hollywood career as basically a utility director, starting out in serials like Zorro Rides Again in the ‘30s, and directing tons of TV Westerns like Bonanza and Wagon Train. (One of his last movies was the blaxploitation film Darktown Strutters in 1975.) Roy Rogers was known as the smiling, singing cowboy, usually accompanied by his horse, Trigger, and his wife, Dale Evans. The Golden Stallion goes a bit deeper than Rogers’ films usually did, however. Trigger gets second billing (yes, above Rogers’ wife), as Rogers falsely confesses to a killing the horse is being blamed for, and winds up on a chain gang. As Tarantino told The New York Times in 2000, “You know, in some movies, a cowboy might go to jail to save his best friend from being shot down dead. Well, Trigger is Roy’s best friend. It’s the easiest leap to have him do that here, yet it’s so powerful and so unexpected. What’s great is that you buy it, you absolutely buy it, and I don’t know that I really would buy it from anybody else but Roy and Trigger.” Seems an appropriate nod in a movie about two best friends—and one of the friends’ dog. [Gwen Ihnat]
He doesn’t pick her up until later in the film, but in the first scene where Cliff sees—and wordlessly flirts with—Pussycat (Margaret Qualls) as she hitchhikes through Hollywood, the Manson follower is sitting in front of a piece of history. The pink-and-orange building behind her is a replica of Pandora’s Box, a popular all-ages coffeeshop/nightclub on the Sunset Strip that was the epicenter of the groovy Hollywood “youthquake” in the early-to-mid ‘60s; interestingly, the actual Pandora’s Box was shut down following an infamous anti-curfew protest held outside the club in November 1966, about which Buffalo Springfield later wrote the song “For What It’s Worth.” The fact that the building still appears functional three years later in Tarantino’s 1969 points towards another death knell for youth culture averted in his alternate-history version of the ‘60s. [Katie Rife]
Don’t Make Waves
A poster of this 1967 film is hanging on the wall at Sharon Tate’s home for good reason: She co-starred in the Beach Party-esque sex farce. Starring Tony Curtis as a guy looking for a fresh start in Malibu, only to wind up meeting Tate’s surfer named—wait for it—Malibu, Don’t Make Waves was produced in the waning days of the beach movie trend. But it did get Tate prominently into the public eye: Cardboard cutouts of her bikini-clad character graced theaters around the country, and a nationwide Coppertone ad campaign linked to the film got her even more attention. [Alex McLevy]
C.C. And Company
Tarantino lets most of the trailer for the 1970 biker flick C.C. And Company play behind the scene where Sharon Tate settles in to a matinee of her movie The Wrecking Crew; if this seems like a tacit movie recommendation, it is. Joe Namath—yes, that Joe Namath—stars as a lone wolf biker, and while he’s obviously not a professional actor, Namath does have a strange magnetism that keeps the movie compelling, or at least watchable, despite your typical overabundance of motorcycle (and dirt bike!) footage. Tarantino cracks up describing the opening scene of C.C. And Company on the Pure Cinema Podcast, and we have to agree. It’s a good one. It’s also representative of the New Hollywood that was making the studio system quake in its boots in 1969: The film was distributed by AVCO Embassy, an indie studio that got its start distributing the original Godzilla in the U.S. before becoming a major player with The Graduate in 1967. [Katie Rife]
The Pussycat Theater
The provocative marquee of the Pussycat Theater, one in a chain of X-rated theaters that spread throughout Southern California in the ‘60s and ‘70s, purrs seductively in the background throughout Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood. Cliff passes it in one of the film’s many driving scenes, as the marquee advertises a double feature of the NYC sexploitation picture Babette (1968)—starring Linda Boyce as an enterprising young lady who will “do pretty much anything with pretty much anyone” as long as the price is right—along with The Turn On!, which may be an alternate title for 1969’s Turn On To Love, or could be fictional. Our research was inconclusive on this one. What isn’t fictional is the exchange Sharon and Jay have later in the film, where Sharon asks if “dirty movies” have premieres, to which Jay replies in the affirmative as he pulls her into El Coyote for dinner. (Fun fact: They’re not talking about the Pussycat in that scene. They’re talking about the theater Tarantino now owns, the New Beverly Cinema, which is right down the block from El Coyote and was an adult theater in the ‘60s and ‘70s.) Full-on XXX pornography hadn’t quite broken through to the mainstream in 1969, but a few short years later theaters around L.A. would host the premieres of multiple entries into the so-called “golden age of porn.” [Katie Rife]
Linda And Abilene
This may be one of the less historically rigorous details in Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood, given that the movie wasn’t released in U.S. theaters until September 1969, but seeing the poster for Linda And Abilene hanging up in George Spahn’s cabin is still a treat. Directed by Herschell Gordon Lewis, Linda And Abilene is one of three low-budget softcore films from the “Godfather of Gore” that were thought to be lost forever until Vinegar Syndrome found them and put them out on Blu-ray in 2013. It was also filmed on the Spahn Movie Ranch while Charles Manson and his followers were living there. (A “family” member named Bill Vance appears as a featured extra in this incest-obsessed “sex Western,” which was indeed a thing in the late ‘60s.) According to the Blu-ray liner notes by Casey Scott, Lewis dismissed Manson’s followers, who stood around gawking at the sex scenes as they were bring filmed, as “goofy kids … stoned out of their heads.” [Katie Rife]
Rick Dalton has a soft spot for Hopalong Cassidy in Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood, counting a collection of mugs featuring the fictional cowboy among the Western collectibles he keeps on the shelf above his in-home bar. He even picks up a fourth mug to complete the set while he’s abroad in Europe, and the collectibles-obsessed Tarantino makes a point of including an insert shot of Rick’s hand placing the new mug next to the others when Rick, Cliff, and Francesca return to L.A. Where the younger characters in the film grew up with Rick Dalton as Jake Cahill on Bounty Law, Dalton himself grew up with Hopalong Cassidy, who was played by actor William Boyd—himself past his prime when he got the role in 1935—in a series of more than 50 B-Westerns in the 1930s. The character was revived in the late ‘40s for the then-new medium of television, sparking a craze for Westerns that later catapulted Rick to stardom. Boyd didn’t die until 1972, so who knows—maybe Rick got the chance to work with his idol before he rode off into the sunset permanently. [Katie Rife]
On a poster for one of Rick’s spaghetti Westerns, Red Blood Red Skin, it’s noted that he co-stars with Telly Savalas. In real life, the famously bald Greek actor was on a bit of a hot streak at the time, after co-starring in The Dirty Dozen in 1967 and appearing in Bond movie On Her Majesty’s Secret Service in 1969. So his appearance bodes well for Rick’s cinematic career. Savalas’ iconic role was just around the corner, though; he played lollipop-sucking lieutenant Kojack from 1973 to 1978, followed by a series of TV movies. Random Savalas fun fact: He’s Jennifer Aniston’s godfather. [Gwen Ihnat]
In the mid ‘60s, former TV cowboy Ty Hardin made his way to Italy, where he cranked out a series of spaghetti Westerns—and Sergio Corbucci’s kinetic, massively entertaining 1967 spy thriller Moving Target, a.k.a. Death On The Run. In the film, Hardin plays an international superspy in a stylish Harrington jacket and driver’s cap known simply as Jason. (Tarantino has described the character as a proto-Jason Bourne.) No stranger to “borrowing” footage, Tarantino repurposes the car chase from 1967 film to stand in for Rick Dalton’s fictional Operazione Dyn-O-Mite, making a point to highlight some impressive stunt driving from Cliff Booth. [Mike Vanderbilt]
Krakatoa, East Of Java
For present-day denizens of Hollywood, the summer of 2018 was a real time warp, as Tarantino and crew took sections of Sunset and Hollywood Boulevards and retrofitted them into what they actually looked like back in 1969. The Cinerama Dome on Sunset, a massive 800-seat theater with a curved 70mm screen, has been a primo location for movie studios to show off their latest epics since its construction in 1963. It also looks pretty much the same as it did when it was first built, and so naturally it gets the flashback treatment in the film. Krakatoa, East Of Java, the disaster movie playing at the Cinerama in Tarantino’s Hollywood, is an interesting choice, given that the 70mm spectacular was a huge flop with both critics and audiences when it premiered in May 1969. Then again, its presence in the film does winkingly nod to the fact that overbloated, sloppily assembled—Krakatoa is actually west of Java—special effects-heavy blockbusters are nothing new. Bringing everything around full circle, Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood is playing in 70mm at the Cinerama Dome as we speak. [Katie Rife]
Also spotted: Numero Uno cologne;Screen Gems; Eddie O’Brien; Sgt. Fury and Kid Colt comic books; Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970); Heaven Sent by Helena Rubenstein; Western TV series The Big Valley (1965-1969); Joanna (1968); Pendulum (1969), Combat! (1962-1967); L.A. newscaster George Putnam; The Night They Raided Minsky’s (1969); They Came To Rob Las Vegas (1968)
And yet, in the Access video below, the interviewer refuses to believe that Carrey will not be lending his rubber-faced charms to Sonic himself.
The first mistake comes early. The interviewer has crossed some wires and asks Carrey what it was like to be “the only animated character” in the otherwise live-action movie.
“Well…y’know, I’m totally live-action in this,” Carrey replies. “It’s just acting. It’s just fun.”
Having gracefully side-stepped the mistake, he continues talking about what it was like to be Dr. Robotnik—the non-computer animated character he plays in the movie.
“So, are you wearing some sort of special suit?” she asks next. “Or how does it work…once they turn you into the animated Sonic?”
“Well, I’m not animated at all. My character’s Robotnik so…I don’t do that,” Carrey replies, still smiling warmly and likely hoping to get things back on track.
“When I played Sonic growing up, he doesn’t really have a voice,” the interviewer continues, refusing to take a hint. “So, we’re going to really get to know him through you. What can we expect and what’s the story going to be like?”
“You can expect me eventually, as Robotnik, to get that little blue boob,” Carrey answers, going through another question where he makes very clear that he will be playing Robotnik, not Sonic.
Though the clip is misleadingly titled “Jim Carrey Goes Off The Rails In This Hilarious Interview!,” the whole thing is Carrey trying his very best to stay on the rails, despite being given every opportunity to fuck with his interviewer. Maybe he just felt like being nice, doing his best to keep the talk rolling without embarrassing the reporter. Or maybe he’s saving his energy for better targets—like the Trump administration and Mussolini’s granddaughter.
In Tolkien, the new biopic of the early life of fantasy writer J.R.R. Tolkien, the author (Nicholas Hoult) is attending Exeter College in Oxford when he receives a letter from Edith, his childhood sweetheart, announcing she’s engaged to someone else. Distraught, Tolkien gets drunk and winds up stumbling through the quad’s grass, which students aren’t supposed to be on, shouting in a made-up language. It’s one of the funniest scenes in the film, and about the only one that connects his later work with his earlier life in a natural and clever way.
I don’t claim to speak Elvish (or “Quenya,” as the most fully-formed version is actually called), but as someone who’s seen The Lord Of The Rings trilogy countless times, the drunken Tolkien sounded like he was babbling in the same Elvish language spoken by Arwen, Elrond, and Galadriel in the film adaptations. In Tolkien, the scene piques the interest of a philology professor, who says he detected Finnish—the language Tolkien drew heavily from when crafting Quenya, the High-Elf language. (Tolkien eventually created six different Elvish languages.)
But, as Tolkien director Dome Karukoski told The A.V. Club, that scene takes place when Tolkien was still in university, when he was just beginning to create the mythology of Middle-earth. Tolkien wrote the languages first, drawing much of his stories and characters from the words he made up for them, letting the words and languages be the driving forces, in a way. Tolkien’s first endeavor was The Silmarillion, the backbone of the mythology he’d draw on when writing The Hobbit and especially The Lord Of The Rings. But he hadn’t fleshed out the elves yet, even though he was creating the language that would eventually be spoken by them.
“He’s thinking about fairies, so what he shouts is more a language of fairies,” Karukoski told The A.V. Club about the scene. To make the language accurate to the time, the director worked with a linguist to come up with a sort of proto-Elvish language. “Tolkien was using the Finnish language, to the point where he was even learning Finnish grammar,” says Karukoski, who is himself Finnish. “So we used that as a base.” He and the linguist, who specializes in Anglo-Saxon language, reverse-engineered Tolkien’s Elvish into how it might have sounded at this earlier stage in Tolkien’s life.
And what is Tolkien saying? “He’s citing Christ, he’s looking for the heavens for an answer because he’s lost love,” Karukoski says. “He’s looking at the northern star and that forms an idea in his mind—the idea of the Eärendil.” (Eärendil appears in The Silmarillion. He’s a child of men and elves who carries the morning star, the jewel called “Silmaril,” on his brow. Galadriel gives Frodo a phial with the light of Eärendil in The Fellowship Of The Ring.)
On March 4, 2022, Warner Bros. and Mojang will be releasing a Minecraft movie. It’s about a teenage girl and “her unlikely group of adventurers. “After the malevolent Ender Dragon sets out on a path of destruction, they must save their beautiful, blocky Overworld.” It’s directed by Peter Sollett (Nick & Nora’s Infinite Playlist).
“It was the first R-rated movie I was allowed to see in theaters, which was a big deal to me at the time,” Blake, now a marketing and PR professional in Chicago, says of The Passion Of The Christ. Blake was 12 and, as a budding horror fan, felt he could handle the violence everyone was talking about. Besides, like so many kids in the U.S., he’d grown up with the image of a cross-strung Christ, the likes of which hangs in Christian churches across the country. He adds, “My mom was typically the gatekeeper of what I could or could not see, but she seemed to have determined, sight unseen, that The Passion Of The Christ was acceptable.”
She wasn’t the only one. Mel Gibson’s box office-breaking riff on Christ’s crucifixion raked in more than $600 million worldwide (nearly $800 million in today’s money), and, 15 years later, remains the U.S.’s highest-grossing R-rated film of all time. The pre-release buzz over the film’s vicious, pervasive violence deterred few, and kids were shepherded onto school buses and church vans for group screenings. “I also remember her making a comment to me or my brother, something about how seeing it might do me or my brother ‘some good,’” Blake continues. “She seemed to be setting the expectation that this would be a life-changing or faith-affirming experience for one or both of us.”
But he left the theater disturbed. “I don’t flinch often, but The Passion made me flinch.” He remembers two things very clearly: the “brutal violence” and “a momentary personal commitment to start paying attention in church and be a more engaged Christian.” Mission accomplished. At its core, Gibson’s film had one goal: To raise the stakes of modern Christianity by depicting its savior’s sacrifice in the most disturbing way possible.
Blake’s reaction was common amongst a number of the people The A.V. Club interviewed for this article. After tweeting out a call for anyone who felt they viewed The Passion Of The Christ at too young an age, we spoke to more than a dozen people who saw the film between the ages of 10 and 15. Some weren’t allowed to cover their eyes. Some sobbed. One puked in her seat. For nearly all of them, it was framed as an event by their parents, their pastors, their teachers, none of whom seemed to care that it spilled more gore than a Troma flick. It was mandatory viewing, and, furthermore, it demanded a reaction. At many screenings, enthusiastic youth pastors filed to the front of the theater as the credits still rolled. There, they encouraged those moved by the graphic violence on screen to commit (or recommit) their lives to Christ. Disoriented preteens, overwhelmed, shuffled forward, heads bowed, splayed hands and spoken tongues descending upon them.
Brit, a Cincinnati State student who saw the movie when she was 12, describes being “horrified” by the film, while being even more disturbed by the reactions of those around her. “There were plenty of people weeping, of course, but others seemed almost thrilled by it,” she says. “I think they were genuinely joyful about witnessing their deity’s sacrifice. There were many tears and gasps of horror, but underneath it all seemed to be a sense of satisfaction. This is their Jesus fulfilling biblical prophecy, after all, so whatever sadness there was seemed disingenuous to me, since this is what they believe had to happen.” She adds that “sermons afterwards seemed much more energetic and apocalyptic for some time after the film came out.”
“To make the point he was making, Mel had to take what had become a pretty two-dimensional image [Christ on the cross], and give it a new zap,” says Fr. Christopher Robinson, an adjunct faculty member specializing in pop culture at DePaul University. “The best way to do that is through violence, blood, and anguish.” To accomplish this goal, Gibson cast aside the Catholic church’s established guidelines for staging Christ’s death, and found inspiration in The Dolorous Passion of German nun Anne Catherine Emmerich, whose visions have been rejected by the Church—and deemed by most religious scholars to be racist as hell.
The resulting film highlights the violence of the crucifixion, downplays the inspiration factor, and creates clear, identifiable villains. It does so while exuding a veneer of authenticity—albeit one decried by Catholic scholars—thanks to Gibson’s decision to have the characters speak only reconstructed Aramaic, Hebrew, and Latin. The majority of its 127-minute running time is devoted to torture sequences rendered in agonizing slow-motion. Gibson says it’s about “love, hope, faith and forgiveness.” Your church leaders probably did, too. But, for Blake, the excitement was short-lived. So was his reaffirmation. “In hindsight, I don’t think that was inspired by The Passion,” he says. “I think I was assigning a purpose to what I had seen and trying to will that feeling of renewal into existence, because I thought that was how I should have reacted.”
It’s true, especially in hindsight, that The Passion wasn’t a recruitment tool so much as it was a weapon of reaffirmation, one that tapped into wells of emotion that many Christians weren’t finding at church. For a number of Christians, the film had a radicalizing quality, with its bludgeoning dose of cruelty, shame, and guilt serving to galvanize. For those outside of the church, however? Not so much.
Kyle Hanawalt, a co-pastor at Chicago’s Brown Line Vineyard church who was in high school when the film was released, recalls bringing a group of secular friends to a screening. He calls it “a very unsuccessful attempt” at opening up a discussion about God, laughing at the idea that “seeing the brutality done to Jesus would somehow compel them.” He likens their reactions to those of a zombie movie: “Dude, check out that crazy violence!” Hanawalt now says he considers the film “one blip among many” that helped him come to terms with the nature of his faith. “I think the movie was effective if you already bought into a Christian worldview and you were starting to waver on intensity and passion,” he says.
But he also touches on how it was in many ways endemic of evangelicalism in a post-9/11 America. As fear of foreigners swelled and President George W. Bush started wars because “God told me to,” a “real separation” emerged—not one between believers and non-believers, but one between born-again Christians and “lukewarm” ones. The Passion’s fierce intensity mirrored that of the evangelical community at the time, which, in a bid to demonstrate its piety, had begun to favor a performative mode of worship that led to a boom in conference and camp culture, as well as an evolution of immersion in the modern megachurch, throughout Bush’s presidency. So intense was the desire to turn the religious “experience” into an enduring mindset that evangelicals began building churches that doubled as campuses. Banks, gyms, grocery stores, and restaurants resided just outside the pulpit, leading to a culture of isolation.
As Dr. Randall Ballmer, a professor of American religion at Barnard College, told The New York Times in 2002, churches like these shield Christians from “a broader society that seems unsafe, unpredictable and out of control, underscored by school shootings and terrorism.” Particular sects of American Christianity have long sought to cast themselves as victims, but their self-identification as a marginalized community was steadily growing during this era—the “war on Christmas,” for example, arguably reached its zenith during the 2000s. With it blossomed a palpable rage, the likes of which, Robinson believes, is likely what drew them to The Passion. Robinson says he was “shocked” by the fervor with which Protestants embraced the film. “I assumed Protestants, particularly, would have a very hard time with the film because it’s not biblical,” he says, noting that, for them, the film’s presentation appeared to resound as “a revenge story.”
“It’s anger and it’s rage,” he says of Gibson’s direction, which luxuriates in villainous caricatures rooted in anti-Semitic imagery. The men torturing Jesus cackle continuously, smiling with broken teeth and dead, milky eyes. The jeering crowds trailing Christ through his trial are uniformly cruel, spitting and cursing at him. Famously, after numerous cries of anti-Semitism, Gibson removed the English translation of a Jewish character declaring, “His blood be on us and on our children”—words that have long been used to justify Christian anti-Semitism. (They’re still there, just in untranslated Aramaic.) Meanwhile, Mary, the disciples, and a smattering of Roman characters are depicted in the softest, gentlest light, marking a severe contrast between the film’s concepts of good and evil.
Consider this against the guidelines presented in the official Catholic Church document “Criteria For The Evaluation Of Dramatizations Of The Passion,” which reads, in part, that “Jews should not be portrayed as … bloodthirsty (e.g. in certain depictions of Jesus’ appearances before the Temple priesthood or before Pilate); or implacable enemies of Christ (e.g. by changing the small ‘crowd’ at the governor’s palace into a teeming mob).” It goes on to note that “the Jewish populace, far from wishing his death, would have opposed it had they known and, in fact, mourned his death by Roman execution.”
This isn’t to say that the evangelical audiences flocking to the film carried innate anti-Semitism. Rather, its sneering hordes reinforced the evangelical belief that they, indeed, were the good guys, and would not only prevail, but see their enemies punished. “It’s about revenge and vengeance,” Robinson continues, saying that evangelical viewers believed that “everything I’m watching them do to Jesus is one day going to happen to them. And that kind of religious hatred, that’s where extremism comes from. And it’s hatred of the worst kind, because it’s based in the belief that we’re loved by God and we’re in the image and likeness of God.”
This wasn’t lost on Jewish civil rights organization the Anti-Defamation League, the national director of which sent Gibson a letter begging him to add a postscript that would “implore your viewers to not let the movie turn some toward a passion of hatred.” And though it’s debatable, obviously, the ways in which the film’s fury registers as hatred, it’s hard to deny that Gibson himself is rippling with it. After The New York Times’ Frank Rich criticized the film for its anti-Semitic overtones, Gibson raged, “I want to kill him. I want his intestines on a stick … I want to kill his dog.” Two years later, while being pulled over for driving drunk, he declared that “the Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world.” In 2010, he threatened to kill his ex-girlfriend, Oksana Grigorieva, while spitting racial slurs. Listen to any of the latter incident’s audio evidence and you’ll come away gobsmacked: How can one person be so angry?
Yet many conservative and Christian leaders stood by Gibson, at least up until the death threats. And, as someone who identified as evangelical in the years following 9/11, I can understand why. I saw firsthand how deeply evangelicals longed for someone that would fuck the other cheek and seize the bully pulpit. Bush’s faith, while pervasive, remained cordial. Meanwhile, racism aside, Gibson was a muscular voice for Christ, no matter how he personally defined his Christianity. “Fast forward 15 years,” Robinson says, “and we have evangelical pentecostals who support Donald Trump.” Those who feel they’re bullied often want nothing more than for the bullies to be on their side.
And it’s here that we can see why The Passion was weaponized as it was on the evangelical youth. It was a blunt instrument, a dizzying punch to the temple. It seems an odd tool in light of its ponderousness and gore, but evangelicals have never shied away from disturbing images so long as it suits their message. Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s 2006 documentary Jesus Camp films a bunch of eight-year olds sobbing over fetus replicas at a communal church camp, and the 2001 documentary, Hell House, which documents a Christian-themed haunted house filled with drug addicts, school shooters, and victims of botched abortions, finds its pious cast reveling in the blood and trauma of the behaviors it deems sinful. (One teen shrieks with joy after discovering she gets to play the “abortion girl.”) HBO’s 2008 documentary Hard As Nails follows a bellowing evangelist who forces kids to re-enact Christ’s crucifixion—when he’s not asking them to hit him with a steel chair.
That aggression works. David, who’s now an English instructor and PhD candidate at the University of Washington, detailed for me the numbing effect of passion plays, which he’d been subjected to long before Gibson’s movie. He says:
I distinctly remember being shown an earlier film of Jesus being killed at youth camp when I was 11 or 12. I think it was part of a worship service, so there was a lot of emotional music in the mix, too, and all the kids were crying. And I think a lot of us were thinking, “Wow, that guy went through this brutal stuff for me?” It was just so devastating to see someone nailed to a piece of wood and left to bleed out and die—especially when you’re told over and over that this is not fiction. This is real. And then, of course, comes the kicker: We’re told, “Yes, and your sin is the reason that Jesus had to go through this, but he’ll forgive you if you give your life to him.” We’ve just watched the guy bleed out and die, our church leaders are telling us that it’s our fault, and we believe them and of course we feel terrible. At the end of all that, what else is there to do? You commit your life to the guy.
The problem, as nearly everyone I spoke to discussed, is that faith like this is deeply unsustainable. That’s what David learned. Blake, too. Hanawalt, as well, says that the kind of fervor prompted by pieces like The Passion don’t make for an enriching faith. “I couldn’t care less about the fervor and passion that we feel in the moment, or any commitment somebody would say in a moment,” he says, “because I often find the focus on the intensity of your faith—especially at a young and easily manipulated age—almost to be a directly inverse relationship to becoming a mature person where faith actually becomes a long-lasting and edifying part of your life.”
So, is The Passion worth watching? It’s difficult to say, because The Passion was never designed to be entertainment. It’s a statement, a thesis, an interpretation of a handful of the most read passages in the most read book of all time. When Robinson, who calls the film’s violence “pornographic,” is asked what he admires about the movie, he quickly cites the opening scene, when Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane with a demon by his side. “You see that spooky, ghostly, Satanic figure and it’s so beautifully done because it’s fascinated by Jesus,” he says. “There’s no hatred and there’s no interruption. There’s just fascination. And it goes, ‘Who are you?’ And it’s this wonderful human thing of, why are we so different from everything else?”
“So, yeah, I think there’s some transcendence there,” he continues, laughing softly. “But then they’re mopping up all that blood and you’re like, the human body doesn’t even have that much blood. What are you trying to do here?”
It sure looks like the agency Hamagami/Carroll Inc., who specialise in entertainment industry art and branding, have given us our first look at how Sonic the Hedgehog appears in his upcoming live-action movie.
Please note that he is “Chill & Likable”, while also being “Mischievous but not Malicious”.
By 2019 standards, the face isn’t terrible! But the whole thighs/hips region is very uncomfortable to look at.
It doesn’t look like HCI were responsible for the redesign of the character himself; their work is detailed as having been tasked with producing a new universal packaging and marketing scheme, where all the different “types” of Sonic—like “Classic Sonic, Modern Sonic, Film Sonic [and] Animation Sonic”—can be presented the same way.
HCI have done a lot of work in both games and film before, handling everything from the promo art and packaging for The Sims 4 to all kinds of behind the scenes help on Star Wars Battlefront and Mass Effect Andromeda.
Of course none of this is confirmed until we actually see a proper trailer for the film (whose release is November), but the source of the material, and the date which it was posted, sure makes it seem likely.