Friday, March 15, 2013

Hollywood's Old Bag of Tricks

Modern film audiences (and especially the vocal fans you find on the internet) have noticed that Hollywood is somewhat of a machine.  The current mode of operation seems to be to suck up every sort of recognizable property and spit out whatever reboots, remakes, and sequels the teams of people in suits and focus groups think will make the most money.  Also, to release them all in 3-D or Real D or Extreme D or Ludicrously Expensive Yet Not Impressive D.  And while I groan along with the internet message board masses when I hear about the gritty reboot of Weekend at Bernie's (I hope I just made that up), this is really nothing new for Hollywood at all.  A lot of us tend to look at Hollywood's past, and the past in general, through sepia-toned, nostalgia-infused goggles.  And while we can look back and point to a certain era as the 'golden age' of filmmaking because we have the luxury of picking from the established classics, Hollywood has always been a greedy, seedy money-grabbing machine.

A perfect example of 'old' Hollywood acting in the typical fashion of 'new' Hollywood is found in Dracula, the 1931 feature version starring Bela Lugosi in a role that would both define and then bog down his career.  Actually, Dracula works perfectly well as several different examples.

Let's start with the source material.  The film, of course, is based on Bram Stoker's popular novel of the same name.  Actually, it's kind of also based on the play which was based on the book.  So yeah, we're all getting weary of the movie reboots based on cartoons based on comics that Hollywood has been serving us lately in it's scheme of regurgitating everything you loved from the 80s, but Hollywood already has a long tradition of making films based on (blank) which is based on (blank).

Also, technically the film was a remake.  In 1922 a German Expressionist version of the film, titled Nosferatu, was released.  The filmmakers did not secure the rights to film the novel, and the late Mr. Stoker's wife sued them for copyright infringement.  She won the case, and when Universal Studios made their version they made sure to do things properly and purchase the rights first.  I suppose the film isn't a true remake, since the original was an unofficial effort, but the writers of the Universal version were inspired by Nosferatu, going so far as to "borrow" a few elements of it.

So far we've got a film based on existing material, which is also a remake, and involved a court squabble over the rights.  Sounds a lot like modern Hollywood, doesn't it?  But what about sequels?  Anybody who's ever been in a video store (remember those?) already knows that there's a zillion and four Dracula and Dracula-inspired films out there.  Hollywood (and its various counterparts around the world) tend to stick with what's proven to make mounds of cash.  So what about Dracula?  Did it have any actual sequels?  You bet it did!  Universal released Dracula's Daughter in 1936, followed in 1943 by Son of Dracula.  The famous bloodsucker also appeared in 1944's House of Frankenstein and 1945's House of Dracula.  He even appeared in a comedy, Universal's release Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein.  So, no, the 1980s didn't event the concept of legitimately menacing horror characters slowly turning into deadly comedians, and Universal started sticking monsters in movies together decades before Freddy vs. Jason sat in Development Hell for 15 years.

Hollywood executives scrambling to gobble up any and all properties with brand name recognition may be hitting ridiculous extremes these days with the Battleship movie already released and forgotten and the upcoming Candy Land movie in the works, and the endless river of remakes/reboots/sequels doesn't seem like it's going to dry up any time soon, but this is not modern Hollywood engaging in blatant laziness.  This is Hollywood reaching into a tried and true bag of tricks to keep audiences coming back to the theaters.

Even the aforementioned 3D isn't anything new but rather an example of Hollywood operating in cycles.  Roughly every 30 years the movie bigwigs push this "craze" on the moviegoing public.  The first time was in the 1950s, which was probably the only time 3D was a legitimately popular craze.  One of the biggest hits of 1953 was House of Wax, starring Vincent Price and released as one of the first major 3D films.  (Incidentally, House of Wax was a remake of an earlier film, 1933's Mystery of the House of Wax, and was later remade under the same title in 2005.  I haven't seen the 2005 version but I highly doubt a version featuring Paris Hilton is anywhere near as good as the one that featured Price.)  Move ahead three decades in cinematic history and you've got Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger handing out 3D deaths to various teenagers.  And today it seems like 3/4 of the movies released are in 3D, which Hollywood insists that we all enjoy and don't mind spending the extra money on.

Sure, there's lots to complain about when you view Hollywood's output as a whole.  For every good film there's about twenty awful (or mediocre at best) that get dumped on us.  But there are quite a few good ones that come out each year, and we can at least savor those.  Yes, I will most likely continue to gripe about the lack of original thought which seems to plague Tinsel Town, and I'm sure most other movie fans will as well.  However, we really can't view Hollywood's machinations as any sort of example of society in creative decline or proof that the public is becoming more gullible.  The studios have been using the same tricks all along, and we've been gladly handing them our money for nearly 100 years.

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