The Cinema of Homage
Let’s take a look at some recent horror-themed movie releases. There’s CABIN IN THE WOODS, an admitted tribute to the slasher flicks of the eighties. DARK SHADOWS is a film version of the popular vampire soap opera. PIRANHA 3DD is the second sequel to a film that was itself a remake of an old movie. We also have SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN, a film version of one of the most oft-told (and filmed) fairy tales of all time, and PROMETHEUS, a prequel to ALIEN. Finally there’s BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW, which despite its many idiosyncratic touches is another tribute to horror cinema of years past.
In modern Hollywood, where originality is under attack like never before, it’s hardly surprising that none of the above films can exactly be called novel. I’ve already bitched at some length about the remake trend, and I think you can guess how I feel about sequels (and prequels). Here I’ll be focusing on tributes, or homages, which in addition to the above include last year’s HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN (a grindhouse tribute), SUPER 8 (an homage to eighties fantasy kid flicks), CREATURE (another slasher movie homage) and CHILLERAMA (a highly retro-centric tribute to drive-in flicks of the sixties).
In the music world so-called tribute bands--Pink Fraud, Lez Zeppelin, Beatallica, etc--are considered novelty acts, and rightfully so. Tribute films, on the other hand, are now the norm, especially in the horror sphere. Romero and Cronenberg are fairly unique names in reality and fiction, yet in horror movies both monikers tend to pop up quite frequently. So do appearances by performers like Sid Haig, Ken Foree, Dee Wallace and Jeffrey Combs, who usually aren’t cast for their talent so much as the fact that they appeared in many of the classic horror flicks the newer ones reference.
The main culprit for all this is undoubtedly Quentin Tarantino, although his certainly weren’t the first films to utilize pop culture references (see DINER and STAND BY ME, whose respective protagonists have lengthy discussions about who would win a superhero fight), aging genre actors (see the early films of Joe Dante) and blatant theft disguised as homage (see Brian de Palma’s entire oeuvre). Such practices were generally frowned upon prior to the early nineties, but that changed with the success of Tarantino’s RESERVOIR DOGS and PULP FICTION, which directly begat SCREAM.
The connection between the shallow, hipper-than-thou SCREAM and PULP FICTION is obvious: both are self-aware entertainments composed, essentially, of spare parts from movies past, be they old school slasher flicks or B-movies. The two films differ, however, in one crucial aspect: PULP was and remains an exciting film while the hopelessly dated SCREAM wasn’t and isn’t. PULP FICTION, after all, is entertaining even if you haven’t seen any of the films that inspired it, but one’s enjoyment of SCREAM and its sequels is dependent on a working knowledge of the scary movie conventions they reference.
The same holds true of Francis Von Zerneck’s GOD’S LONELY MAN (1996), another highly referential nineties horror film that clearly took its lead from Tarantino (the film contains innumerable references, some obvious and some not-so, to nearly every crime movie of the seventies). Yet it lacks Tarantino’s style and confidence, and isn’t particularly memorable. Ditto Eli Roth’s CABIN FEVER (2003), which explicitly referenced THE EVIL DEAD and THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE yet neglected to add anything worthwhile of its own.
Perhaps its Tarantino’s very shamelessness in his borrowings that has ensured his success--as proclaimed by Pablo Picasso, “Good artists borrow, great artists steal.” You may argue about Quentin Tarantino’s artistic status, but I’d say he’s definitely a stealer, while Von Zerneck and Roth are borrowers at best.
Other stealers? Try Sergio Leone and George Lucas. The former is the creator of ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (1968), easily one of the most heavily referential movies of all time. Co-scripted by Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento, diehard film nerds both, ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST is packed with enough nerdy movie references to make Tarantino and his disciples look like lightweights in that area. Check out the film’s imdb “Movie Connections” page, which lists no less 20 movies referenced therein (I used to love quoting the ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST line “How can you trust a man who wears both a belt and suspenders? The man can’t even trust his own pants,” unaware that it was lifted from Billy Wilder’s ACE IN THE HOLE). Yet the finished film, far from the mess you might expect, is one of Leone’s greatest.
As for George Lucas, he gave us STAR WARS, a movie quite a few fan boys like to proclaim “completely original.” Sorry guys, but it’s actually anything but, with décor cribbed from the old FLASH GORDON serials and a narrative from Akira Kurosawa’s HIDDEN FORTRESS (1958), amid scattered references to everything from the classic experimental short 21-87 (1964) to THE TRIUMPH OF THE WILL. Whether this enhances or detracts from the film overall I’m not sure, but I can say for certain that Lucas, like Leone before him and Tarantino after, was able to subsume his influences into a vision uniquely his own. I’ve heard STAR WARS, ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST and PULP FICTION called many things, but not tributes.
So the practice of referential filmmaking is neither new nor unique to horror cinema. What is new is the sheer profusion of such movies. Unfortunately, I don’t detect too many Quentin Tarantinos, Sergio Leones or George Lucases amid the new crew, who in this era of declining box office receipts might do well to rediscover the concept of originality. In the midst of so many tributes to old movies, after all, you’re probably better off viewing those old movies and skipping the imitations, which are usually always inferior, these days especially.