I noticed that Lloyd Kaufman's Poultrygeist (subtitled Night of the Chicken Dead) has finally emerged in theaters (currently playing on 1 screen). Kaufman is the president of Troma, a production company and distributor that has survived as an indie for over 30 years, mainly due to salesmanship. By any count, they have been responsible for at least 150 movies, and Kaufman himself has over 200 on his resume. Anyone who has ever frequented a video store has probably come across titles like Blondes Have More Guns (1995), Cannibal! The Musical (1996), Chopper Chicks in Zombietown (1991), Citizen Toxie: The Toxic Avenger Part IV (2000) (and, indeed, the entire Toxic Avenger series), Class of Nuke 'Em High (1986), Femme Fontaine: Killer Babe for the C.I.A. (1994), Killer Condom (1996), A Nymphoid Barbarian in Dinosaur Hell (1991), Rabid Grannies (1988), Sgt. Kabukiman N.Y.P.D. (1991), Surf Nazis Must Die! (1987) and Tromeo and Juliet (1996). They have also distributed such nuggets as Brian De Palma's The Wedding Party (1969), Samuel Fuller's Shark! (1969) and Dario Argento's The Stendhal Syndrome (1996).
I received press materials on Poultrygeist two years ago, although I never received a screener or any other info on how to actually see the film. Not that the time delay matters much: Kaufman's films are more about presentation than timing. He's a master salesman, and he knows far more about coaxing (conning) people into seeing his movies than he does about actually making good movies. There have been a few others in Kaufman's league over the years, notably William Castle, whose famous movie theater gimmicks made events out of his cheap "B" films, although his escapades couldn't deny the fact that his House on Haunted Hill (1959) is actually a very good movie. Jerry Bruckheimer is also a high-stakes huckster; his summer blockbusters always look great going in and almost always suck going out. And yet we always come back for more, since there's always the chance his films will be good, like Crimson Tide, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl or at least guilty fun like Con Air.
Which brings me to this week's box office list and a brand of salesman far sleazier and stealthier than any of these old-fashioned soapbox showmen. For example, how on earth did a huge stinkbomb like 10,000 B.C. (409 screens) earn $94 million? Are that many people excited about bland actors, stilted dialogue and phony-looking CGI dinosaurs? Didn't the dinosaurs created 15 years ago for Jurassic Park look just as good if not better? What's more, didn't the low score on Rotten Tomatoes, 9%, send out some kind of warning? We're talking major suckage, and yet somehow this disposable piece of junk has nearly made its budget back. The studio and filmmakers shouldn't be rewarded for this behavior; they should be punished by not giving them money. And yet everyone has given them money. How was this done? Advertising. They made the film seem like an unmissable event.
This is a psychology not unlike the type used by televangelists: give us money or go to hell. Buy your ticket to heaven. Buy happiness. If you've seen the latest movie phenomenon, you'll be a hit with your friends, or at the water cooler. If you don't see it, God help you. You're on your own. That explains a big-scale film like 10,000 B.C. but how to explain the unexpected success of duds like The Bucket List (169 screens) and Fool's Gold (216 screens)? These are the types of films that depend heavily on word-of-mouth. If it's funny or romantic, people will tell their friends. Are people really telling their friends about these films? Has the studio paid people to spread the word? Has subliminal advertising really caught on?
The Bucket List scored 40% on Rotten Tomatoes and has made $93 million, doubling its budget. And it's a cancer movie. A cancer movie! Cancer movies are made to win awards, not to sweep up at the box office. As far as I can tell, this one is the highest grossing cancer movie of all time. How did they do it? Well, for one thing, nobody actually has any symptoms in this movie, other than being tired. (Jack Nicholson throws up once, but offscreen, and only after eating a rich meal. It's also played for laughs, since Morgan Freeman gets to say, "I told you so.") There are very few hospital scenes as well. The bulk of the movie is a wealth fantasy, wherein we can fantasize about spending wads of cash. This type of movie worked well during the Depression, and what with today's miserable economy, people are no doubt looking for some kind -- any kind -- of comfort.Fool's Gold scored a 10% on Rotten Tomatoes, and made $70 million, meeting its budget. This one is much harder to explain, given that neither Matthew McConaughey nor Kate Hudson has any personality to speak of, much less any onscreen chemistry. (Most of my colleagues were fooled into thinking that Hudson had some talent by her appearance in Almost Famous, but I did not take the same bait.) I'd prefer that they kept making movies together so that they no longer drag down the careers of other, more talented co-stars. Here's what it comes down to: McConaughey looks good without a shirt on and Hudson has a nice booty. I think that has to be it. After all, Maxim magazine sells tons of copies based on less. It's probably the closest thing we're going to get to eroticism in our increasingly juvenile movies. However, I'd like to think that the people spending all this money on all this junk at least feel bad about it in the morning.