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Stargates, Websites and Meta-Horror: Seven Lesser-Known 1994 Films That Influenced Cinema

March 21, 2014

Twenty years ago I was standing in a movie theater ticket line with nothing to lose. When the box office opened up I asked for “one ticket to see Timecop.” I was a young kid who was tired of sneaking around theaters and I wanted to gamble. The guy looked at me, smiled and gave me a ticket to the R-rated JCVD action flick. That was my 1994. I watched every movie from Angels in the Outfield to The Last Seduction and became fully immersed in all cinema had to offer. It was a glorious year for movies that proved to be incredibly influential, eye-opening and a demolisher of preteen naivety  (Thank you Snowballs, Gimps, Linda Fiorentino and Natural Born Killers).

The following post discusses the less discussed or forgotten films of 1994 that had a huge impact on today’s cinema. Their directing decisions, writing and marketing played a big part in molding careers, blockbusters and global advertising over the last 20 years.

Here is the list! Enjoy.

1. Heavenly Creatures

After Bad Taste, Meet the Feebles and Dead Alive Peter Jackson directed Heavenly Creatures. The Oscar nominated film proved Jackson had more cinematic prowess than creating spectacular splatter gore. Roger Ebert had this to say about it:

What makes Jackson’s film enthralling and frightening is the way it shows these two unhappy girls, creating an alternative world so safe and attractive they thought it was worth killing for.

heavenly creatures

Jackson had successfully blended fantasy/reality by casting fantastic leads (Kate Winslet’s first film), creating a beautiful alternate world (visual effect company Weta’s first film) and writing a fully realized friendship between the two girls. Jackson and writer Fran Walsh (Jackson’s partner) worked hard to forge the bond and have talked about the importance of the relationship that went awry.

 The friendship was for the most part a rich and rewarding one, and we tried to honour that in the film. It was our intention to make a film about a friendship that went terribly wrong.

The stressing of friendship is evident in Jackson’s later film trilogy The Lord of the Rings. Jackson carefully crafted Tolkien’s work and created a beautiful middle earth inhabited by wonder, darkness and friendship. Jackson and crew made the fantasy palatable and the casting of the central roles was spot on. Jackson’s prior work in horror comedy and his careful crafting added an unthinkable layer to the film that helped get the small nuances right (Hobbit foot hair). The films went on to win Oscars, collect over a billion dollars in revenue and establish Jackson as an A-list power player.

2. Stargate

The story of wormholes, aliens and James Spader feeding hairy creatures candy bars spawned 350+ television episodes, copious novels and the shortly held belief that French Stewart was badass.

stargate French Stewart

Stargate was a science fiction hit that made Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin (writer, producer) household names. Shakespeare it wasn’t but it began the Emmerich/Devlin reign of huge dumb that is still taking place today.

Before Stargate Emmerich helmed the uber-violent JCVD/Lundgren vehicle Universal Soldier.  The movie did well at the box-office and opened the door to Stargate. The film was originally planned as a trilogy but the sequels were scrapped when Roland decided to make the super blockbuster Independence Day. ID was a massive hit and was followed up by the critical dud Godzilla. Their success from Stargate and early buzz from ID allowed Emmerich and Devlin to make Godzilla “their way” (they’ve since apologized). The marketing famously involved highly secretive tactics that never gave the audience a glimpse of the monstrously large lizard.

godzilla

Godzilla was everywhere and the world couldn’t wait (listen to the great HDTGM podcast about the film). It was an international hit but pretty much everyone disliked it. Scott Mendelson of Forbes wrote a restrospective on Godzilla and explained the effect it had on today’s financial projections.

In terms of its box office, it serves as a lesson about lowering expectations and a sober exhibit of declining attendance and inflation.  Sony spent a year boasting that they had the unquestionable summer box office champion and thus they were smacked down when the film merely did ‘very good’ at the worldwide box office. Today the studios desperately try to spin opening weekend projections as low as possible so they can bask in ‘surprise’ when the film ‘over performs’.  In the summer of 1998,Godzilla was considered an artistic failure and a box office loser.  By today’s standards, they’d still be half-right

Stargate was the unassuming science fiction flick that opened the door to 2012, The Day After Tomorrow, 10,000 B.C. Anonymous, White House Down and the game changing Godzilla.

3. The Specialist

The Specialist was the last of a dying breed. It was an R-rated action film that was based around Sharon Stone and Sylvester Stallone having sex in a shower. Hal Hinson of the Washington Post had an interesting take on it:

With all the preening, posing and stretching, it’s hard to know if “The Specialist” is an action movie or an exercise video. Or a porn movie without the sex. Fit, trim and tanned to a luscious shade of gold, the stars offer their bodies to the camera as if they were contestants in a bodybuilding competition. And so entranced are they with their own smashing physiques that you half-expect them to burst into a rendition of “I Feel Pretty.”

Soecialist

The Specialist made a lot of money ($57 million domestic) but was killed by critics (4% RT) and did long-term damage to Sly’s action career. The annoyance was clear as Judge Dread, Assassins and Daylight all disappointed at the box office. In 1994 The action landscape was changing and Specialist was one of the catalysts.

Muscled men shooting guns whilst killing thousands was becoming a thing of the past. Action stars egos were getting too big and so were the paychecks. 1994’s action films were a changing of the guard. Keanu Reeves bulked up for Speed and had great chemistry with the soon to be famous Sandra Bullock. Also, The husband/wife/Tom Arnold dynamic in True Lies introduced male insecurity and female empowerment to the blockbuster dynamic.

1995 furthered the destruction of old action. Rumble in the Bronx, Heat, Goldeneye, Desperado and Bad Boys ushered in a new violent era. Big budget films flopped as Judge Dread, Waterworld, Batman Forever (successful but was followed up by Batman and Robin), Under Siege 2 and Sudden Death all lead to the revaluation  and seismic shift of action featuring less ego, more style and Travolta as the overacting bad guy.

Hello short lived Nic Cage action era!

Nic Cage

4. Shallow Grave

Danny Boyle’s cinematic debut won him the London Film Critics Circle “Best Newcomer Award” and was the highest grossing film in Britain. It established a long running partnership with writer John Hodges (Trainspotting, Trance) and was followed up by the iconic Trainspotting. Shallow Grave was a perfect springboard for Boyle who revolutionized zombies (rage-infected people), won an Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire and directed the underrated Sunshine.

The tiny budget of Shallow Grave forced dynamic shots and interesting camera angles that have become a staple of Boyle’s cinematic arsenal. He did an interview with Indiewire where he talked about his budgets:

We cap our budgets, nothing above 20 million dollars. You get more control. It’s very simple, you own all this. If you take 100 million dollars, you’ve got less control or its more of a battle to exercise that control. I find it liberating that when you’re trying to turn 100 million into 15 million, in that you’re trying to make it look like 100 million but have it cost 15 million. I love that discipline, it makes you very evangelical in the way you promote and sell the movie to the crew, when you’re asking them to do it without claiming overtime and you’re trying to persuade the actors to go a bit further with it. It becomes a mission all-together and I like that. I think it adds to a film.

The lessons Boyle learned from Shallow Grave helped mold one of the most interesting voices we have in cinema today. His focus on crime/money has been a reoccurring theme in his films and the yuppie wrongdoers ushered in a new wave of British crime cinemaHe always tackles something different and has launched many careers (Ewan McGregor, Cillian Murphy, Kelly MacDonald). I’m glad Boyle has taken the road less traveled and that cinematic journey started at Shallow Grave.

Shallow grave

5. Spanking the Monkey

Seth Stevenson of Slate summed up David O. Russell and Spanking the Monkey really well with this quote:

David O. Russell wrote his first feature-length film, Spanking the Monkey, while he was bored on jury duty. Though this coming-of-age story earnestly delved into incest, sexual assault, and attempted matricide, it somehow still got laughs—enough to win it the 1994 audience award at Sundance

David O. Russell is a fascinating director. I appreciate all of his movies and his career has been fun to follow. His set disposition may have changed but he has always had one common variable to his films. He has always coaxed wonderful performances from actors.  Rolling Stone’s Peter Traver’s review of Spankingthe Monkey gives us an early glimpse.

Davies gives a poignant, emotive performance that tears at the heart. And Watson is magnificent; seductive and overwhelming without losing her character’s human scale.

David O’Russell made incest work and somehow garnered laughs. His decision to direct and write around such a tough topic forced him to create believable characters that sold the material.

Jeremy Davies

His acting/director collaborations have made him a popular commodity. Mark Wahlberg made a name for himself with Boogie Nights but his highest rated Rotten Tomatoes film is Three Kings. Years later Wahlberg gave a career best performance in Russell’s I Heart Huckabeess and starred in The Fighter which won Melissa Leo and Christian Bale Oscars. The next year Silver Lining Playbook won Jennifer Lawrence an Oscar and proved Robert DeNiro still had it in him. O. Russell’s last film American Hustle was nominated in all of the acting categories.

His style has always been against the grain but Ebert summed him up in his review for Flirting With Disaster:

The writer and director is David O. Russell, whose first feature, the independently produced “Spanking the Monkey,” won him the financing for this more ambitious and very funny film. He seems to have used a lot of his budget on the cast, assembling a large group of mostly familiar faces, who project that special joy actors emanate when they know they have a great line coming up.

The success of Spanking the Monkey in 1994 has paid theatrical dividends for the past 20 years and hopefully prevented Christian Bale from drastically losing weight again.

6. Star Trek: Generations

Like it or loathe it Star Trek: Generations passed the torch to Patrick Stewart’s crew and inspired three sequels, extended television life and an eventual blockbuster remake. The most important aspect of Generations was its trendsetting internet presence. Generations boasted the first web site to promote the film. There was less than one million people with internet access in the US at the time. However, not surprisingly there was a large “Trekkie” presence of early adopters. The website boasts this fact:

The “Generations” site was an immediate success, quickly becoming one of the hottest destinations on the Web. Pages were viewed millions of times by fans around the world and when the movie opened three weeks later, it enjoyed the biggest weekend box-office total of any Star Trek movie to date.

Star Trek: Generations wasn’t without its faults and received only subpar reviews. There was controversy behind the scenes due to rewrites, budget restrictions and reshoots. Leonard Nemoy didn’t appear as Spock, Malcolm McDowell received death threats and Shatner ended up writing a book bringing his character back to life. However, despite the problems the movie was a worldwide success. It also became an inadvertent trendsetter and provided a glimpse into today’s Star Trek online culture (Just ask J.J. Abrams and crew who are still battling with the fans).

It seems only natural that Star Trek was the first to venture into the new “cyber frontier.”

7. Wes Craven’s New Nightmare

Timeout magazine summed up New Nightmare perfectly:

The climactic punch-up fails to match the power of the first film’s true ending, but in deconstructing his own bastardised creation, Craven redeems both the series and his own tarnished reputation.

Freddy Krueger had become a joke. A once scary nightmare machine became a one-lining stand up comedian who couldn’t garner laughs or scares. However, somewhere out of left field Wes Craven came up with New Nightmare. It played with convention and brought scary back. The film was critically respected (77% RT) and I believe it led Craven to the groundbreaking Scream.

New Nightmare only made $18 million because the series was so deflated. However, it has accrued a cult following and helped create the “meta-horror” dynamic. Wes Craven had found his footing and got his edge back (Sans Vampire in Brooklyn). Roger Ebert a notorious hater of horror liked the movie and eloquently wrote about it:

“Wes Craven’s New Nightmare” dances back and forth across the line separating fantasy from reality. This is the first horror movie that is actually about the question, “Don’t you people ever think about the effect your movies have on the people who watch them?”

Ebert’s question was answered several years later as young punks slashed and quipped their way to box office glory. New Nightmare refreshed Craven and this allowed him to give another generation a screaming new nightmare.

New Nightmare

There you have it! Seven influential 1994 films. Comment. Reply. Share. Comment again. Share those comments and reply to other comments. 

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. johnleavengood permalink
    March 21, 2014 10:02 pm

    I’m grateful for most of these movies. I feel like I should have “given thanks” for them on Thanksgiving back in ’94…although back then I had no idea the impact these films would have on the future.

  2. March 22, 2014 3:53 pm

    time portals in stargate?…. wormholes darn it lol.

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