Of Rooms and Witches
Okay, I want to talk about something in particular this week. Only, in order to do that, I need to make confession before we go any further. Are you ready? This isn’t going to be easy for me.
Here goes nothing…
I’ve never seen The Room.
I only heard of the damn movie a year ago. In fact, the first few mentions just seemed like weird internet memes to me. There’s a whole bunch of stuff that crops on Twitter and Facebook that seems to have been there for decades. Recurring photos and in-jokes that started long before I ever became an indie horror writer and tumbled headlong down the rabbit hole of social media surfing. Some mornings it’s like unearthing some ancient, near cryptic hieroglyph or cave painting. Where did this mysterious figure come from, I catch myself wondering. What is he trying to tell me by saying hello to someone called Mark.
As time has gone on, I’ve begun to realise there’s no escaping The Room. It another Plan 9 from Outer Space. Another straight faced movie that has people rolling in the aisles but, from what I can make out, this modern phenomenon is far eclipsing the mad genius of Ed Wood. There are now screenings where the audience chant along with quotable lines of stilted dialogue in near religious devotion and even take in props with them. There are even growing conspiracy theories, especially since James Franco’s movie about the making of The Room, that this could have all been some knowing ploy. An Andy Kaufman-esque prank.
Still, it’s been added to the infinite To Do list. Item 937, Watch The Room. Right between Understand Abstract Expressionism and Binge Spooks.
The problem now is how to watch it. There’s no point going to a fan screening, I’ll just end up feeling left out on the joke they all discovered for themselves years ago. There’s also no point watching Franco’s The Disaster Artist first either. No, I need to sit down and watch the movie on my own. The problem being, when it comes to this sort of thing, I’ve been burned before.
When I got my first TV and video player in my childhood bedroom, I started building my first movie collection. It began with the obvious things. Disney movies, old TV classics, a cherished copy of Time Bandits. As I crept into my teens, it expanded into the Python movies, Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Predator and other movies starting with P. I got my first copy of The City of Lost Children. I watched Manhunter and began to disagree with anyone who liked Silence of the Lambs, which I also bought.
I read Empire magazine a lot back then and one issue came with a little black book that changed my early collecting and viewing habits. It was called 100 movies to See Before You Die. As a morbid kid, it felt very much like an instruction.
Thanks to that book I watched Annie Hall. The French Connection. All three Godfather movies. Heat. Leon. Citizen Kane. Lawrence of Arabia. There was also a movie called This is Spinal Tap in there. They described it as ‘the funniest movie ever made’, which appealed to me. I loved comedies. From the black and white, silent movies I’d watched with my parents to shows like Spaced and Big Train (along with other non-Simon Pegg related, late 90s TV comedies).
I thought I’d seen some incredibly funny movies, but if this Spinal Tap thing was the funniest one ever then it had to be worth watching.
I found a copy in my local Woolworths and the cover was plastered with even more high praise. I immediately bought it and watched it that afternoon. You know what? Not the funniest movie ever made. Not for me, anyway. These days, I can admit it’s funny, but I think there are far funnier Christopher Guest movies. The problem with that first time was that I expected the funniest movie ever made and comedy doesn’t work like that. You can’t be told you’re going to laugh more than you’ve ever laughed before without raising your expectations. It changes how you watch. It makes you wait for something that you might not find funny the first time. The strain of trying to keep a bored smile alive can totally kill a funny movie.
For a long time, I thought Spinal Tap was boring. It’s possible that I had to listen to a lot of music it was parodying first. Not only that, but it helped to watch the Scorcese documentary they’d clearly used as a starting point as well. As a horror fan, I know another movie that fell into the same trap. Only this one did it with its release and not due to years of fanboy hype. Ah, the poor old Blair Witch Project.
It came over here after it opening in The States and it was billed as ‘the scariest movie ever made’. We heard tales of American audiences losing their minds. We heard people had fainted or gone looking for those kids. It sounded amazing. I remember people buying the posters long before they ever saw the movie. I remember them watching the ‘Curse of the Blair Witch’ documentary, which had supposedly convinced some of them it was a true story. They were looking up Rustin Parr and talking about the way this found footage had been found, forgetting that this was all a very clever piece of marketing.
The problem being, of course, that if your favourite scary movie is flavoured with demonic figures, sharp knives and spilt blood, you’re not going to be scared by three kids running around the woods in black and white. Especially when those kids are also shooting the movie themselves and you don’t really see much beyond a little bit of rustic craft hanging in a tree and some handprints on a wall.
Now, don’t me wrong, I enjoyed the first Blair Witch. It was an interesting experiment that reminded me of movies like Southern Comfort or Deliverance. Tales where the woods take a toll on those who dare to cross their threshold. I wouldn’t say it was the scariest movie ever made, but that was fine for me. I’d learnt my lesson thanks to Spinal Tap. Some of my friends, though, hated it. They still do. They roll their eyes and snigger about it. Which is a shame. They might have liked it if they’d not been hyped up by that marketing campaign. Only the marketing campaign doesn’t care about that. It was there to sell tickets.
Hyper really is a dangerous thing. I remember Empire giving both Phantom Menace and Matrix Reloaded four stars. It had felt like a seal of approval at the time. Whereas it may just have been a way of making sure a big movie with a lot riding on it did well. I swear I had a VHS copy of the Spawn movie that had a review from something like the LA Fisherman’s Times on the cover. As if they’d had to trawl (ho ho) that far for praise of that pretty crappy movie.
I guess it worries me because the indie and small press writer’s world sits dangerously close to that particular minefield. Strong reviews are a good tool for book sales. A lot of people don’t buy a book because they like the look of it. No, they buy it because they see it has a lot of five star reviews.
Urgh. Five star reviews.
I’m sorry, but I’m uneasy about five star reviews. Five out of five means perfection to me. It means that something is one hundred percent successful. I don’t think even my favourite book in the world is a five star book. I don’t think perfection should be achievable. I see no harm in trying, but I just don’t think there’s such a thing as an infallible novel or movie or album.
Here’s another thing: 3 stars is not a bad review. 3 is over halfway. 3 is good. 3 is respectably decent. Only it’s seen as underwhelming. You look at any website where they attribute an explanation to a star rating and 5 will be ‘I loved it!’. 3 is usually more along the lines of ‘This was okay’. Okay? You’re saying that this was closer to brilliant than failure but that it was just ‘okay’?!
You hear people on podcasts asking for 5 star reviews to keep them high on the iTunes charts and I get it, it’s a cutthroat media. It just makes the praise feel targeted when it’s asked for. It stops being a review and it becomes marketing. It’s disingenuous. Manufactured. A little untrustworthy.
I remember thinking that user reviews were a great tool on websites like Amazon. I used to treat them as a valuable resource. Then came the day I went to buy a boxset I really wanted and found it only had an average score of 2, when it was meant to be really good. Feeling that I’d been deceived again (damn you, Tap!) I decided to properly read all the reviews. They were a joke.
There was a pile of 1 star reviews that basically said ‘Bought as a present, not for me.’ Then there was a whole bunch of reviews for another boxset by the same filmmaker, where people had bought it not realising it was Region 1. Their scathing 1 star reviews were against basically Amazon’s way of displaying information, but they had been put against the wrong boxset. Which felt strangely meta to me. Then there were your typical reviews screaming about subtitles or pointing out the digital transfers of these old movies weren’t up to someone’s picky standards. I seem to remember one 2 star review was based solely on the fact they didn’t like the cover.
If you publish everyone’s opinion without discretion, then it all becomes pointless. It becomes a blinkered, endless tug of war. Cineworld now let people review a movie after they’ve watched it. Every single person who goes to see every single movie can give it a 1 – 5 rating. Guess what happens? Everything gets a 3, if it runs long enough.
I don’t think a review should be expressed in maths. In an ideal world, we’d dump the stars and freshness ratings and just let people write a review. An actual, proper review that you had to read all the way to end to see what they thought. That’d be a step in the right direction. That way people can discern. They can extrapolate. They can’t just speed down a list of stars to pick where to spend their wares. It’s like only reading the books that win The Booker Prize or watching the movies that win an Oscar. It’s lazy glory supporting at its best, but those of us who want to sell our work in the 21st century have to commit to this bizarre bargain. It’s not about millions. It’s about five out of five. Which, to be fair, is something the minds behind The Room have absolutely nailed. Whether knowingly or by accident.
So, here I sit, wondering whether if I’ll ever be able to watch The Room without carrying all that hype into the experience with me. Apparently, they’re talking about double bills of The Room and The Disaster Artist now, but I don’t think that’s the way in. That’s for the people who are already fans. I could buy a copy and watch it now, running smack into the hype wall. Or I could wait for all the hype to die down and then watch it with a little less expectation on my shoulders? I guess only time (and my own geeky impatience) will tell.