Another week, another feature - something with a little more meat on its bones, as I take a look at the ‘versus movie’.
To me there seems to be no surer sign that a film franchise is running out of ideas (well, shy of sending it to space – here’s looking at you Leprechaun, Jason X and Hellraiser: Bloodline) than deciding to mix it with another established franchise and watch the two icons bounce off one another.
In the not too distant past, we’ve had a couple of massive examples of this in Alien vs Predator (and its sequel, AvP: Requiem) and, of course, the bonkers Freddy vs Jason. Hell, even superhero films are getting in on the act with Batman vs Superman on the way.
These are perfect examples of what the versus film brings to the table, but these are not the first time such a mash up has found its way onto screens. In fact, this particular sub-genre has been with us for decades.
A BIT OF HISTORY
Perhaps the first true golden era for Hollywood horror came at the end of the 1920s/beginning of the 1930s with Universal’s Monsters.
Genuine cinematic legends were born as Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff bought some of literatures greatest monsters to life on the silver screen.
As the likes of Dracula, Frankenstein and The Wolf Man brought the crowds to the box office, in time, the studio needed to up the stakes. And what better way to do it, than by placing these monsters on screen together?
Starting with 1943’s Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, a sequel to both the original Wolf Man and the studio’s own Ghost of Frankenstein (no ‘versus’ in the title yet, but it was still early days!) the iconic characters started to appear in a number of crossovers that soon drew in the infamous Transylvanian count (as well as hunchback and random mad scientist!) in The House of Frankenstein (1944), and then again in its 1945 sequel, The House of Dracula.
Perhaps the death knell came when Universal added comedy duo Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein in 1948 (despite the film’s massive box office success). However, loving homages to these films have appeared throughout the years with the criminally underrated Monster Squad (1987) and the more recent Van Helsing (2004).
These monster mash films are good fun, if a little campy (even for the time), but the biggest problem does seem to stem from the wasted opportunity that came with them. The characters have such little interaction (and in some cases Frankenstein’s monster and Dracula are so marginalised) that it doesn’t seem like putting them in a film together achieves much.
Aside from the sterling cinematic smackdown between the looming Monster and feral Talbot in Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man (in fact this fight would go on to have a large legacy among the films to follow it), there’s very little versus on display here too.
The same cannot be said of the first MEGA monster clash to hit the screen, 1962’s King Kong vs Godzilla.
Part of Toho Studio’s 30th anniversary celebration, this film TOTALLY embraces the ‘who’s toughest?’ kids-on-a-playground premise of a proper ‘versus film’. In fact the ridiculous plot is almost entirely incidental – it’s basically there to contrive a reason for the great ape and Gojira to fight. And by jove they do!
The fight is epic and full of zany shenanigans like electric storms giving Kong a Street Fighter II-esque, ‘Electro Grasp’ special move and even some judo! As if that wasn’t cool enough, the music played during the epic final confrontation was not an original piece… it was first played during the clash between Frankenstein’s monster and the Wolf Man!
King Kong vs Godzilla was a MASSIVE success (it’s reportedly the most commercially successful Godzilla film ever) and lead to a whole influx of Godzilla vs… films, as Toho paired their iconic monster with a whole host of it’s other gigantic, city wrecking beasties. They’re good fun, but the studio’s own Mothra, King Ghidora, Mechagodzilla et al just don’t offer the same sense of occasion as the big G meeting up with a legit big screen legend in Kong.
Of course, the reason this seemed like such a big deal was due to the fact that these films came from separate studios and it was a genuine big deal to see them interact. A studio mining its own creations just lacks that same spark... unless the studio in question has worked hard to acquire the rights to a franchise for that purpose.
When New Line Cinema snapped up the rights to Friday the 13th, it only took the release of Jason Goes To Hell to see the plan they had in mind - a certain razor gloved dream demon was poised to clash with the psychopathic Jason Voorhees.
And so began the long journey to 2003’s Freddy vs Jason, the biggest, baddest and most anticipated horror versus film of all time. If you haven’t seen this film yet, do it. It perfectly gives you all the things you can expect from a versus film, warts and all.
Of course, if you can’t afford the rights to a rival franchise, you can still hope to make money by crossing your own, a clear strategy of Charles Band’s Full Moon Productions in recent years.
Perhaps most famous for its Puppet Master series (a franchise with a jaw-dropping number of ever increasing entries), the studio has seen crossovers between it’s Dollman series and the Demonic Toys series too. Often cheap, rarely making any sense, always absolutely barking, these films really show what can happen with a ‘versus’ film run amok.
Interestingly, the first of these Puppet Master vs Demonic Toys, was released in 2004, the same year as the ultimate ‘versus’ film – Alien vs Predator.
Much like Jason Goes To Hell’s Freddy glove, scifi/action fans had been waiting to see the faceoff between these two deadly extraterrestrials since an alien skull popped up in the background in Predator 2.
Having already spawned a series of comics and computer games, the journey to the screen was arduous. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, the film went ahead. It made a lot of money (enough to spawn a sequel) but the general consensus is that the film is a bit disappointing. The basic story is a load of old bollocks, ignoring a vast amount of the already established mythology of both franchises to introduce a pyramid in Antarctica and, well, any old excuse to show you how impressive these monsters can be rendered using modern special effects.
Now let me clarify, they DO look incredible. The fights are visceral and the monsters really provide some great screen moments (the first Predator/Xenomorph clash is guaranteed to cause goosebumps). Plus, for those paying attention, a scene from (guess what? Yep, that again!) Frankenstein meets The Wolf Man can be seen playing on a tv screen during the film, so that adds some instant cool.
The only problem is just that the film itself is a bit naff.
Poor characters, poor story, it’s all bang, no buck, which is a crying shame for the series.
So that’s a brief (and certainly not complete rundown) of the versus film. What has this little wander down memory lane shown us?
The obvious pro for these films is that, well, you’re combining franchises. If one film series has 10million fans and the other has 8million fans, surely you’re looking at 18million people interested in your film? To a studio exec, it’s a no-brainer.
Cynical as that may sound, it’s clearly the biggest motivation in these films. Cinema is a business and businesses are all about making money. A versus film is pretty much a safe bet, just look at the box office returns for the films listed above.
From a less cynical, more creative standpoint, by combining franchises you are able to pick and choose from a deep, rich mythology and backstory with which to tell your own tales. As pointed out above and in my previous feature, lots of films, especially in the horror genre, take place in a shared, interconnected universe – these films are a natural expansion of that, reinforcing and rebuilding those links.
Finally, as mentioned above, there is a genuine thrill to come from seeing two previously unrelated intellectual properties appear together. How do they react to one another? Can they coexist? And if not… which truly is the toughest?
Unfortunately, the ‘versus’ film is a bit of a short term fix and can actually deliver the killing blow to a franchise.
Look at it this way — if two seemingly indestructible, unstoppable killing machines come to blows, one has to be revealed to be weaker. By showing one of these boogeymen to be defeated by an onscreen rival, that particular monster loses some of its aura of terror — it is no longer unstoppable, it is weaker than one of its horror film peers. By admitting that, a horror franchise (which are often built around their terrifying lead antagonists) is hobbling itself from that point forward.
Needless to say, that can also provide a huge obstacle in getting two studios to work together for the greater good. Neither wants their pet project to be harmed.
This is equally true of the fans. If you were a fan of one particular villain and then witnessed him take a bloody good hiding from a character you have less affection for, your reaction to the film is likely to be pretty negative.
Look at it this way — how many football supporters leave a match saying it was ‘a great match’ if their team was on the losing end?
Any film seen to portray their screen faves in an unfavourable light will only alienate those fans, essentially driving them away from the film.
Now the typical way to avoid this problem is to provide a cheap, non-finish to the climactic battle.
And I do mean typical.
From Frankenstein’s monster and the Wolf Man being swept away in a flood, to King Kong and Godzilla’s fight reaching its undisclosed conclusion beneath the waves, from Freddy’s severed head winking and the hybrid chestburster tearing free of that final Predator’s chest — these films have a real habit of refusing to provide a satisfactory conclusion to the fight that is the sole purpose of the film.
This in itself is a massive weakness — the films are so often unable to offer a true answer to the question that draws crowds to the film in the first place: ‘Which of these is better?’
Yet, this is not the only weakness inherent in these films. One of the biggest problems, from a story standpoint, is that these antagonists don’t exactly make for sympathetic leads. Undead/demonic/alien killing machines don’t really sell any human element to the plot.
This often means the inclusion of some human protagonists, not least so we can keep the bodycount up and show off our big bad monsters’ handiwork to whet the appetite for the main course smackdown to come. Unfortunately, these characters rarely have any grounding in the established backstory for either franchise, making it really rather difficult for fans of either franchise to give much of a toss about them.
The closest we get is Mr Weyland (played by LANCE FUCKING HENRIKSEN*, no less) in AVP. Okay, that’s kind of a cool Aliens reference, but are you honestly telling me people wouldn’t have preferred to see Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley or big Arnie taking on the bad guys?
These disposable human characters often just clutter already crowded films, existing purely to provide exposition or, well, die to show how tough the big bads are.
Now, another problem with featuring bastard, psycho-killer monsters (a great album title there) is that nobody really roots for either side. In fact, by the end of most of their solo outings you’re willing the last survivor of their rampage to get revenge and kill them.
This is where one of my biggest gripes with these films comes from: to rectify this problem, film-makers often decide to make one of the starring monsters sympathetic.
On very rare occasions, this can work. Larry Talbot is a man under a terrible curse, so he can make for a compelling lead when he isn’t under the influence of the full moon. But when the fur is on display, well, Larry is no more Mr Nice Guy.
Most of the time, however, the stretch to paint a big bad as a ‘big good’ is too far.
In AVP a lone surviving Predator forms an alliance with our human heroine to defeat the xenomorph menace. This is because, as has already been shown in canon, the Predators have an honour-based society that recognises aptitude as hunter/warrior.
All proving yourself to be a good hunter does to a Predator is make you a more prestigious trophy. Did the big scaly dude decide to offer Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Dutch a respectful handshake for proving to be tough? NO, he tried to rip his head off.
The only time a Predator proved to be ok towards a potential viable victim, was at the climax of Predator 2 when Danny Glover’s Harrigan is given a prize for defeating his Predator nemesis. Fair enough, but AVP’s heroine Alexa hadn’t done that. More to the point, the predator bosses certainly didn’t decide to become best mates with Harrigan and hanging around with him.
In Freddy vs Jason, an attempt is made to make Voorhees sympathetic. Of course, Freddy Krueger is about as bad as they come, a murderous child abuser in life, who has manipulated Big Jase into killing on his behalf. Fair enough…
…EXCEPT for the fact that Jason Voorhees has an onscreen body count of over 150 victims, the vast majority of whom were teenage camp counsellors.
And he’s our good guy?????
It is ridiculous to expect a serious horror villain to draw cheers and support — the very nature of horror makes these monsters and their actions repugnant.
In fact, this common evil often leads to a recurring plot point in these films. The villainous antagonists will form an uneasy alliance to cause maximum carnage, before their own volatile natures or sinister agendas bring them into conflict. In fairness, this is the best way a plot point can work with characters who are, at heart, evil, manipulative and unreliable, yet it is fast on its way to becoming a cliché of the genre.
Think Freddy and Jason’s alliance to slaughter teens or Dracula’s dominion over the lesser creatures of the night in the Universal hayday.
Perhaps it is a necessary evil as otherwise the creatures must be kept apart for the vast majority of the film (not necessarily a problem for me) or the film becomes an hour plus of fighting (like They Live, well, nearly).
Perhaps plot clichés should be expected though. Horror has long since established its own rules and tropes, a film combining those is sure to be weighed down by them.
And clichés are not the only bane to a versus film’s plotting, perhaps the biggest is the sheer amount of contrivance needed to justify the film. From the aforementioned Antarctic pyramid in AVP, to Freddy’s convoluted plot to rebuild fear through using Jason, all the way to the barking nonsense of the plot of King Kong vs Godzilla, these films often have to stretch credulity to warrant their ultimate payoff — the titular confrontation.
SO WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
Despite the tremendous financial success of the likes of AVP and Freddy vs Jason (FvJ reported a box office of $114,843,030 on a budget of $30million!) the ‘versus’ film trend seems to have tailed off a little. After FVJ plenty of ideas were floated, including a sequel Freddy vs Jason vs Ash (adding the Evil Dead’s iconic hero played by BRUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCE CAMPBELL). The original treatment for this film can be found online, such as through the fantastic site Bloody Disgusting. The film never materialised but a bloody good comic series was produced to adapt the story.
At the same time other potential crossovers included the insane sounding Helloween, in which Hellraiser’s cenobites would come into direct conflict with Halloween’s fellow horror A-lister Michael Myers. A very very daft but certainly intriguing idea, like F v J v A, this never occurred either.
But if Pinhead vs Myers seems an odd choice for smackdown, one other proposed showdown really takes the cake.
Chucky vs Leprechaun.
Warwick Davis’s pintsize magical malevolent dwarf vs Child’s Play’s Good Guy gone bad — on film.
Perhaps I’ve been hit in the head one too many times, but by god, I imagine I’d fall in love with that.
Before you dismiss this as random fanwank, first heed this — in a bizarre twist, the creator of the Child’s Play, Don Mancini has himself spoken about the idea at this year’s Frightfest in the UK and even added his own dream idea of Chucky and Freddy Krueger going head to head in a kill contest on the big screen!
Don has been quoted online as saying:
It all just seems too obvious to me [Leprechaun vs Chucky]. I mean Freddy vs. Jason, I thought that was a fun movie… But for me the problem with that team up is that Jason doesn’t really have any personality and doesn’t talk. If Freddy and Chucky got together that would be a really funny double act. If you did a Child’s Play on Elm Street and did it like a horror movie version of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. So Chucky and Freddy meet and Freddy says, Chucky I’m a big fan of your work. Chucky says, Freddy I admire your technique. And they decide that Elm Street is too small for the two of them so they have to have a contest to see who can kill the most teenagers before sunrise.
Of course, none of this has happened either.
And perhaps the reason for this, is that, well, versus films just don’t measure up to their original franchises. While Freddy vs Jason and Alien vs Predator may have done well, who really prefers those films to the strongest film in either of the franchises they combine?
AVP is at least 4th place in the Alien series and I’d argue that all three Predator films are superior.
Who would say they prefer F vs J to the original Elm Street or Friday the 13th? Or even those series’ fan faves, like Dream Warriors or Jason Lives?
Surely there can’t be a lunatic out there who’d say King Kong vs Godzilla get ANYWHERE near the sheer brilliance of King Kong or Godzilla?
While Frankenstein meets the Wolfman is undoubtedly great fun, it pales in significance next to Universal’s initial outings for their iconic monsters. The studio’s own masterpiece, The Bride of Frankenstein makes this monster mash look positively amateurish is comparison.
Unfortunately, the smackdown between two major characters isn’t enough to warrant making a film when a cheaper, easier to produce sequel will keep things ticking along nicely.
The whole ‘who would win in a fight?’ seems to be going strong in the medium of comics, itself a supposedly more action oriented product.
And there have been some excellent horror mash ups written by the medium’s most talented writers. The likes of Hack/Slash and Army of Darkness (itself an adaptation and continuation of the Evil Dead)have taken in all kinds of additional horror icons such as Chucky, Re-Animator’s Herbert West and Hatchet’s Victor Crowley (including a current crossover between those two titles), while the treatment for Freddy vs Jason vs Ash was also translated to comic format.
This alone shows the sheer amounts of awesome you can see with comic ‘versus’ ideas:
With all this in mind, it can come as no real surprise that the next major versus film is between two comicbook heroes. As superhero films are big business now (following the success of Marvel’s Avengers, itself boasting a host of cool versus clashes such as Iron Man vs Thor) it can be no wonder that Batman vs Superman is going ahead.
If it performs as well as I imagine it will, perhaps it could once again herald a whole new wave of horror versus films.
Like what I hear you cry?
Well, look at next week’s blog entry to see the creatively bankrupt suggestions my pretty little head can come up with.
I bet you can’t wait.
* Like I wasn’t going to mention him!
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