Happy Labor Day from Los Angeles! It’s hotter than Appalachian State up in this piece!
Why Does Hollywood Hate Labor Day?
(The setting: Labor Day weekend, 1983. The place: A home not far from yours.)
Man: A long weekend. Thank Christ! What’s new at the movies, dear?
Woman: Mortuary and Deathstalker.
Man: You have found your way, you know where you are going, but I am still groping in a chaos of phantoms and dreams, not knowing whom and what end I am serving by it all. I do not believe in anything, and I do not know what my calling is. (Shoots himself.)
The despair may not always be this Chekhovian, but Labor Day is certainly the holiday that tries moviegoers’ souls. With very few exceptions, it is the four-day period during which the studios unload their offal into the multiplex, hoping everyone’s too worn out by a summer of empty spectacle (or too busy getting hammered at cookouts) to notice. There are exceptions: Focus Features has twice attempted to launch awards contenders over the holiday (Mira Nair’s Vanity Fair in ’04 and Fernando Meirelles’s The Constant Gardener in ’05), while John Sayles’s Eight Men Out quietly debuted in 1988. But these films all failed to catch fire commercially (even though Rachel Weisz did go on to win a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Gardener), and this is probably due to most viewers being conditioned by years of trash to avoid new releases on Labor Day weekend.
For a time in the early 80s, even the studios and independent distributors avoided Labor Day. After the respectable duo of Time After Time and City on Fire* dazzled in 1979, Labor Day weekend briefly operated as a buffer between dross and something nearer to quality than, say, The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu (though not so much in 1980, when John Huston’s godawful Phobia dropped on September 9th). Then came 1983, Mortuary and Deathstalker, and, oh, so much more.
For those of us who go to the movies every weekend like others go to church, mosque, temple or jazz brunch at the Celebrity Center, Labor Day is a time for dread – and morbid excitement, because a film has to be awfully special for the studios to be ashamed of it. Sometimes, this shame is ill-founded; most morally upstanding human beings would find Crank objectionable, but I don’t know how to not enjoy Jason Statham fucking Amy Smart doggie-style over a newspaper vending machine in front of a busload of Asian tourists. I’m pretty sure George Horner would’ve committed likewise indiscretions with the zoetrope had immaculately sculpted abs existed in the 19th Century.
But there is a downside. There is, for example, Labor Day ’97, when I was trying to avoid my (fortunately temporary) shithole apartment, and spent the entire weekend hopping from theater to theater on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. What was good (She’s So Lovely and Hoodlum) was hardly good enough to offset what was weaponized dreck (Kull the Conqueror, Excess Baggage and Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation). And, yes, I paid to see all of these movies. I even went back for seconds on Conspiracy Theory. These were dark days.
But as for whether this was the worst Labor Day weekend of all time… it’s a close call. To celebrate the tenth anniversary of my miserable cinematic peregrinations, I’ve decided to rank the worst the weekend has ever had to offer. In order, from least to most laborious (with brief defenses)…
1993 – Fortress, Calendar Girl, Kalifornia, Boxing Helena
Stuart Gordon’s Fortress isn’t half-bad, and Dominic Sena’s Kalifornia was the first movie to showcase Brad Pitt’s capacity for white-trash menace, but Boxing Helena killed Jennifer Lynch’s auteur-ial aspirations for a full fifteen years – and for very good reason. Meanwhile, Calendar Girl was the end of Jason Priestley’s bid for big screen stardom, but not, unfortunately, the end of John Whitesell’s feature directing career (he may be back shortly with that Meatballs remake you steadfastly do not want).
2007 – Halloween, Balls of Fury, Death Sentence, The Nines
Bad as Halloween and Balls of Fury are, I’ve heard good things about Death Sentence. Maybe John August’s The Nines is good enough to redeem this grouping, but until I see it, I’m gonna let Halloween and Balls of Fury do what they gonna do.
1994 – Milk Money, A Simple Twist of Fate
Any weekend weighed down by Milk Money is in trouble. Kids bicycle into the city and return with a prostitute (Melanie Griffith natch) who bewitches a widowed father played by Ed Harris. Directed by Richard Benjamin, Milk Money is one of those movies you watch in extreme disbelief; it’s the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold premise plunged straight into the abyss. At least Richard Gere was a consenting adult in Pretty Woman; what monster would conceive of kids purchasing a surrogate mother from the mean streets of Cincinnati, Ohio? The Queen City deserves better.
Steve Martin’s Silas Marner update, A Simple Twist of Fate, is interesting as a glimpse into where he might’ve gone had audiences bought his intellectual side. It’s flawed (the gag writer comes out at inopportune times), but, under Giles MacKinnon’s direction, it’s far from unwatchable. Martin had two good movies left in him: Mamet’s The Spanish Prisoner and the eternally undervalued Bowfinger. He’s all gone now.
1991 – Child’s Play 3, The Pope Must Die(t) and Beastmaster 2: Through the Portal of Time
Child’s Play 3 takes place in a military school with a different Andy. That’s all I remember about that movie. The Pope Must Die(t) is best remembered as the most clunkily retitled movie in film history, while Beastmater 2 is… Beastmaster 2. There’s something comforting about that, I suppose.
1996 – The Crow: City of Angels, First Kid, The Trigger Effect, The Stupids
I’ve yet to experience the wonderment of First Kid because I’m a sucker for delayed gratification. I have, however, seen The Crow: City of Angels, which is Edward R. Pressman settling for not being able to dig up and sodomize Brandon Lee’s corpse. As such, it’s repugnant enough to override the flawed-but-enjoyable duo of The Trigger Effect and John Landis’s The Stupids (a film the old pro is actually quite proud of).
2000 – Highlander: Endgame, Whipped
Highlander: Endgame brought together Connor and Duncan MacLeod for the first time (I think). That the fabric of time and space was not irrevocably torn can only be viewed as a good thing. Whipped took advantage of Amanda Peet’s comedically adroit (i.e. topless) performance in The Whole Nine Yards, and we’re still talking about it today. I’d be more forgiving of this weekend had I not paid to see Whipped out of sheer boredom.
1999 – Chill Factor, Outside Providence
An honest-to-god Skeet Ulrich/Cuba Gooding, Jr. buddy flick, Chill Factor might be the only film ever developed as a Labor Day sked-filler. I’ve seen bits and pieces of it on cable, and it’s real good. Outside Providence was a long delayed Miramax film that test screened all over Manhattan for a solid year as "a comedy from the directors of There’s Something About Mary". The final cut is a Harvey Scissorhands special, and devoid of personality as a result.
1997 – Hoodlum, Excess Baggage, Kull the Conqueror, She’s So Lovely, Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation, Trojan Eddie
See above. And marvel that I yet live.
2002 – feardotcom
Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse by way of morons. Director Bill Malone engendered some B-movie good will his remake of The House on Haunted Hill, and pissed it away with this incoherent, unreleasable mess.
1986 – Born American, Bullies, Shanghai Surprise
For a minute there, it looked like Mike Norris was going to be a superstar, but then Renny Harlin made Prison and left the brother of Chuck in the lurch. Seven years later, he was playing "Dancer" in The Beverly Hillbillies. There is justice. But watch Born American anyway; it’s an indefensibly sadistic piece of Cold War-fearmongering from your favorite Finnish hack before his craft matured. Or is that "metastasized"?
Bullies is a essentially a remake of 1985’s The New Kids, only not as good, which is a little like saying "I’ve got the shits, but at least it’s not dysentery".
And Shanghai Surprise is as bad as you’ve heard, only most of the people who’ve testified to its… inadequacies have never seen it. You might run across it on cable one of these days, and I challenge you to stick with it for more than ten minutes. Professor Toru Tanaka would collapse into tears whenever it was brought up in casual conversation.
I’ve been beating the heat by staying in and watching SCTV for most of the weekend, so I give you…
"Benny Hill Street Blues"
*Not the Ringo Lam flick; this one, according to the IMDb, relates the bittersweet tale of "A pyromaniac, ex-employee of a city oil refinery creates an explosion at the facility which starts a chain-reaction of fires that engulf the entire city". It co-stars Henry Fonda as Chief Albert Risley and James Franciscus as Jimbo. That sounds like a whole lot of awesome.