More Than Just Film
Bad films come in all shapes and sizes. Some are wildly successful (such as Transformers franchise), some are painfully dull (such as Transformers franchise), some are technically flawless but utterly forgettable (Ridley Scott’s career since Blade Runner) and some are bad in the same way that unrefrigerated meat is bad. Attack of the Clones bad.
There are, of course, certain films out there which transcend bad and somehow end up being perversely entertaining and freakishly life-affirming. For a director, this is a very special trick to pull off once, but somehow German filmmaker Uwe Boll unwittingly cracked this ‘so-bad-its-great’ formula and, between 2003 and 2007, released five delectably dysfunctional videogame adaptations.
Give Boll half a chance and he’ll mention how he is a uniquely brave and independent visionary in the world of cinema, how he survived outside of the Hollywood system and, against all the odds, forged for himself a career as a writer, producer and director. The Videogame Years will cover all of this, as well as describing the remarkable chain of events instigated by his adaptations which lifted him from obscurity to infamy and cemented his reputation of probably the worst filmmaker ever. Even Ed Wood, Boll’s many detractors reason, would have made better films if he had the budgets that Boll has commanded. To his credit Boll has admitted that this is probably true.
Boll’s first videogame adaptation was 2003’s House of the Dead, an only sporadically gory piece of ‘tits, ass and automatic weapons’ exploitation horror aimed unashamedly at teenage boys. It boasts a recognised and recognisable actor, Jürgen Prochnow (famous for playing the U-Boat captain in Das Boat) who shambles about the place quarter-heartedly in a kind of paternal action role. I wonder what could have driven him to appear in House of the Dead but upon trawling through his filmography I find the cinematic calamities Wing Commander, Judge Dread and (christ on das bike) The Da Vinci Code. Everyone has a price and bills to pay. House of the Dead cost $12 million, grossed $14 million and is widely acknowledged as the worst zombie film ever made.
Two years later Boll returned with a double-whammy.
Alone in the Dark aimed at being an action-filled X-Files/Aliens hybrid but it ending up looking remarkably like this. Responding to criticism of how dumb House of the Dead was, Boll attempted an ambiguous Lynchian-style ending which worked brilliantly. I planted a lie somwhere in the previous sentence. Thankfully for Christian Slater and Stephen Dorff, not many have witnessed their lowest ebbs. It cost 25 million in dollars US to make and lets just say the journey to make a profit will be a long one. At least it made way more money than…
BloodRayne is a vampire-fantasy adventure set in 18th century Romania which tried to be a bloodier and sexier version of the popular Underworld and Resident Evil film franchises. Kristanna Loken (the T-X in Terminator 3) is the double-sword wielding half-vampire heroine who has the misfortune to appear in the clumsiest and least sexy sex scene ever. So whilst BloodRayne boasted more blood and breasts than its competitors, it certainly wasn’t popular. Costing $25 million it has so far grossed little over $3 million although, as the film’s credited screenwriter suspects, it could one day be hailed as a cult classic of sorts. Meat Loaf, Ben Kingsley and Michael Masden all proved that they’re not too proud.
The party ended in 2007 but in some style.
In the realm of movies made outside of the Hollywood system, In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale is (comparatively speaking) a star studded epic – Jason Statham, John Rhys-Davies, Ron Perlman, Ray Liotta and Burt Reynolds all do their best to recite their dialogue without laughing or walking off the set. Costing $60 million, it was meant to be Uwe’s big artistic statement. In reality though it came across as a kind of Pound Land’s own brand Lord of the Rings and has so far barely made back $10 million.
And lastly there’s Postal (budget $15 million, gross $18 million), a madcap black comedy – part dystopian nightmare, part War on Terror farce – which is funny in so many ways, bar ha-ha.
As well as his videogame adaptations losing close to $100 million dollars at the box office, Boll sustained near unprecedented levels of derision from critics and threats of violence and torrents of personal abuse from the gaming, horror and film-going communities. So The Videogame Years will be a tragic tale of hardship and suffering but also an inspirational tale of passion and determination as it charts the lengths Boll was willing to go to in order to defend his right to make films and how, on pay-per-view television, he lived out every artists’ dream by beating several of his sternest critics to a pulp.
Finally, this will be a personal journey in which I try to come to terms with why I have become slightly obsessed with this singularly bad filmmaker. In part two of The Videogame Years I’ll address what is so wrong with these films (the easy bit) as well trying to discover just why I enjoy watching these plainly awful films so much (trickier). This is our story, Uwe and me, and that was the first part, which I’ll rather belatedly call…
The Game Changer.
Coming next…now I’m a Bolliever.
Part Two: Now I’m a Bolliever
I’ve never enjoyed ‘bad’ culture this way before.
On the few occasions I went to clubs specialising in cheesy pop music, I was the sourpuss sulking in the corner desperate to hear something good. Surely the point of culture was to spend your time consuming as many renowned classics as possible and trying your damnedest to avoid the 99% of dross. So what exactly is it in Uwe Boll’s videogame adaptations that makes me want to stop and smell the garbage?
Everything in House of the Dead, Alone in the Dark and BloodRayne is so misjudged and off-key that they inadvertently stumble into the realms of the avant guard and, if you allow them, create an almost hallucinatory state upon the spectator (it is perfectly natural to repeatedly ask yourself ‘is this really happening?’). The plots are full of logic-devouring black holes, and the scripts (often rewritten on the hoof by Boll and his actors) are rendered incomprehensible by clunky narrative devices such as unnecessary voice-overs and constant flash-backs and –forwards. When test audiences for Alone in the Dark complained that they couldn’t grasp what was happening, Boll begrudgingly added explanatory text to the start of the film. Eight paragraphs of it. Which tried to explain the entire plot (including how it ended). Now audiences could be lost and confused before witnessing a single frame of action.
This bewilderment is usually compounded by Boll’s love of over-ambitious and over-long action sequences, conflicts in which style always triumphs over narrative logic. Share a few minutes of your life with the main battle scene in House of the Dead and its quite stunning over-use of deeply unconvincing bullet-time effects. Also, (ignoring the fact the clip is dubbed in Spanish) witness how a fire-fight in Alone in the Dark can mutate into a masturbatory onslaught of slow-motion gun-fire and pounding German RAWK music.
The awfulness of the clichéd and nonsensical dialogue (an example from House of the Dead -‘You did all this to become immortal, why?’, ‘To live forever!’) is accentuated by acting which can be divided into ‘are they still alive?’ wooden and ‘completely off the scale’ hamming. In the first category we have Burt Reynolds (the titular patriarch of In the Name of the King) who appears to have suffered concurrent strokes on both sides of his face, whilst Michael Madsen (Vladimir in BloodRayne) is so puffy-faced and pie-eyed that he probably thinks he really is a vampire hunter. Like stones falling from their mouths, their lines of dialogue have so little emotional resonance that they must have been recorded in an anechoic chamber. Both actors fall back upon the classic Bollesque technique of occasionally stopping mid-sentence, squinting into the middle-distance, and then…
…starting again in a vain bid to inject…
Remarkably, Boll’s videogame adaptations boast a smattering of perfectly capable actors slumming it for the fat pay check. Jason Statham (Farmer in In the Name of the King) wears the resigned grimace of a man being paid $5 million to eat a foot-long shit sandwich, whilst Ben Kingsley’s performance as Kagan the Vampire King (BloodRayne) is a minimalist master-class in expressing a naked, legs-akimbo and cheeks-splayed level of contempt for the entire production and everyone associated with it. And their friends and families. And anyone who owes them money.
The void created by this lack of actual acting usually encourages some staggering scenery chewing which in any other film would go no further than the editing room floor. Watch Matthew Lillard (Shaggy from the Scooby Doo movies) do battle with one of the masters in the field, Ray Liotta, for worst over-acting in a supporting role for In Name of the King, whilst Billy Zane’s all too brief cameo in BloodRayne actually borders on the not-terrible.
The dizzying high given off by the sheer naffness of House of the Dead, Alone in the Dark and BloodRayne is made all the more potent by their relatively short running times. If brevity is the soul of wit then it’s also the marrow of unintentionally funny films. Even though In the Name of the King concerns an ancient evil and its army of savage monsters, the scariest thing about it is its two hour-plus running time. Thankfully, the whole project is so utterly botched that my eyes stick upon it as they would on a vividly colourful traffic accident. You know that these things can never be unseen and yet you still can’t quite look away.
At 100 minutes, Postal feels twice as long as it should be and, distractedly, I wonder if comedies can be unintentionally funny. Too broad to be satire and too busy trying to offend everyone to be genuinely funny, Postal rails against 9/11, Waco, police brutality, consumerism and religious fundamentalism like a caveman throwing rocks at the moon. It (just about) qualifies as entertainment due to a number of jaw-dropping moments. It opens with an airliner slamming into the twin towers whilst the high-jackers haggle with Bin Laden via a mobile phone over exactly how many virgins await them in heaven, and it ends with Bin Laden and Bush skipping hand-in-hand across a flowery meadow as nuclear missiles rain down and mushroom clouds fill the horizon, and in-between scores of children are slain in cold blood and Mini-Me actor Verne Troyer is gang-raped to death by hundreds of sexually frustrated monkeys.
Boll’s films are littered with some glorious gaffs – in the middle of action sequences character’s clothes and weapons can change from shot to shot, any reflective surface will reveal a crew member and we even see cameramen caught in shot and trying to be invisible. Best of them all, a dead character in Alone in the Dark looks up, realises that they’re still in shot and goes back to being dead again.
Considering all of their obvious failings, it would be easy to assume that these videogame adaptations are dry exercises in post-modernistic winking at the audience or cheap spoofs on low budget 80s exploitation cinema, like feature-length versions of Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace. But no, scan them for irony and they will all come up clean
From the simple aims and pure intentions of these bizarrely terrible and perversely enjoyable films erupts forth a geyser of truth, meaning and beauty, cleansing me of my preconceptions of good, bad or pant-shittingly awful. I’m sent sprawling into a child-like state of innocence and wonder. My mouth is dry and I’m gurning. I hear myself laughing like I haven’t done in years as I’m gripped by the urge to run into the street and hug strangers. I see that we are all one and (although I’m pretty sure that I’m going to hate myself in the morning) there is only this moment. Can I get a witness, FOR I AM A BOLLIEVER!
I’ve never enjoyed ‘bad’ culture this way before.
Coming up in part three…just who keeps funding this shit?
Surely the most damning praise you can throw at a director is to call them a good businessman. And whilst Boll has never had much joy wringing cash out of Hollywood’s major film studios or their ‘indie’ subsidiaries, it’s down to his considerable business nous and sheer bloodymindedness that he found a way to finance his movies. This is the story of how he got his money, the freedom this bought him and how he blew it. I’ve decided to call it…
The Finer Points of German Tax Law and the Slaughtering of Children for Effect
Despite bombing at the US box-office, House of the Dead made a profit of just under $2 million through European markets and DVD sales, a relatively modest sum but enough to take the sting off of the film’s critical mauling. Assuming he was onto a winning formula, Boll continued to theatrically release videogame adaptations which, with their sizeable budgets, glossy production values and sprinkling of big name actors, looked remarkably like proper films. And yet as the budgets got bigger, the returns got smaller.
Alone in the Dark and BloodRayne both had catastrophic opening weekends, loosing almost $50 million between them. This is the kind of form which would/should kill off any director’s career and yet Boll followed this up with his über-budget epic In the Name of the King (2007) which lost another $50 million on its own. This begs the questions…
To get a crude idea of how it worked, we must first travel to the foreign country that is the past, the mid to late 2000s to be precise. Let’s say that somewhere in Germany, Little Dieter’s numbers come up in the Euro lottery draw but when he takes his amusingly over-sized cheque for €50,000,000 to the bank, Heir Tax Man invites him to donate about half of it. Thankfully, Dieter discovers that there is an entirely legal tax shelter set up to encourage investment in German filmmaking and gives his money to Uwe Boll’s production company, Boll KG Productions, in exchange for a share of the global rights to Boll’s next project. These rights are then bought back by Boll KG Productions, supported by the German government, for around €40,000,000 in a tax-free transaction. Deiter keeps the majority of his cash, the world gets another Boll videogame adaptation and, up until 2007 when the tax laws were changed, Uwe was truly independent from the German and American film industries and rendered practically flop-proof.
This degree of financial freedom and artistic autonomy allowed Boll to react against and critique Hollywood and some of its conservative values. Whilst each videogame adaptation was unmistakably a genre piece – the zombie film (House of the Dead), the monster film (Alone in the Dark), the vampire film (BloodRayne), the fantasy film (In the Name of the King) and the gross-out comedy (Postal) – there is something not of Hollywood about each of them, revealing how they were conceived and produced outside of the system.
An example of this is Boll’s recurrent motif of children dying in his films, something that mainstream cinema tends to avoid, especially for comedic value. The rule of Boll is the cuter the child, the nastier the death and this reached an apex in Postal when, during a shoot-out at a fun park, we see numerous children getting shot in slow-motion, and then their (wriggling) bodies carpeting the floor. It’s a shocking moment clearly designed to offend but also an alien one for movie audiences.
Postal is a world of wrong but I when I first saw it I allowed myself to be seduced by its bizarreness and outrageousness. The thrill of being shocked though is short-lived leaving only the empty feeling that a hard earned opportunity to say something of note (and there’s no doubting how hard Uwe did work in order to find ways to fund his films) had been wasted. Much of the film plays with the iconography of the War on Terror and Uwe could have made an uncomfortable and unpopular, although perfectly relevant, statement on religious fundamentalism and the post-9/11 mentality which Hollywood wouldn’t dare attempt. And yet this relative artistic autonomy was squandered on crass racial stereotypes and jokes about people with mental and physical handicaps. I walked into this relationship with my eyes wide open, but there was no getting away from the fact the sheen of my infatuation was being scuffed away.
Just like House of the Dead, Postal went on to make a tidy profit on DVD, despite (or possibly because of) crashing and burning so spectacularly upon release and gaining a near mythic status in the pantheon of bad. On a long enough time-line it seems that all of Boll’s films will make a profit, although we’ll probably need to live long enough to colonize other worlds for BloodRayne and In the Name of the King to be deemed successes.
It would be wrong to think that the tax shelter gave Boll carte-blanch to make whatever he pleased. He still had investors to keep happy and it was their plan, made by committee, to focus on videogame adaptations. It all made sound business sense, the rights to videogames are infinitely cheaper than those for books or films, no one had to waste time coming up with original ideas and each title had inbuilt brand recognition and an obsessively loyal fan base. What could possibly go wrong?
Coming up in part four…how it all went horribly wrong.
Part Four: Raging Boll
I’ve got a soft spot for the videogame The House of the Dead primarily for the following reasons –
a) it was bloody and violent
b) it came with one of these rude boys
c) its one of the few games I’ve actually completed.
The game spawned a popular franchise running from the late 90s to the late 00s but, in the greater scheme of things, the original was too repetitive and (as already alluded) too easy to be truly considered a classic. Fanboys can be a fickle lot though and to wonder how they could get so offended by Boll’s film version as to threaten to harm or kill him is to underestimate their loyal and obsessive nature. Especially the kind that spend a large portion of each day anonymously posting vitriolic comments and arguing with other fanboys on media file-sharing sites, online discussion sites and social networking services, public spaces not known for open-minded debate or rationale thought. It is not without a pinch of irony or a sprig of tragedy that Boll became a common figure of hatred and derision, a bollgeyman if you will, for the videogame and horror movie communities, the very people who made up his target audience.
Rather than seeing this jaundiced response as a reflection upon certain artistic deficiencies of his film, Boll put it down to his adaptation being a little too loose for everyone’s tastes. The game The House of the Dead is a kind of ultra-violent X-Files, with a top secret government agent slaughtering his way through the zombie infested mansion/laboratory to rescue his sexy partner and thwart the plans of a brilliant and evil geneticist. In Boll’s film, a group of rich teenagers travel to an illegal rave (sponsored by SEGA) on an island with a zombie infestation problem. Despite no actual houses or evil mansions appearing in the film, Boll argued that his film stayed true to the spirit of the game. What it did stay true to was the clunky and linear nature of the game’s narrative and the purely functional dialogue (often delivered with all the emotion of a videogame character), whilst taking some outrageous liberties with certain narrative ingredients, such as location, characters and plot.
Instead of enjoying the film’s joyful shoddiness, the majority of the gaming community could only see a cynical and calculating exploitation of a popular brand-name. Or to put it in their words, the raping of their childhoods. The internet phenomenon of Boll-bashing spread like wildfire and could be enjoyed by anyone regardless of whether they had seen the film or had any emotional attachment to the game. This only got worse as Boll persisted with more videogame adaptations.
Unlike most directors (and he is unlike most directors), Boll admits to actively seeking out what is written about him and his films, and is no stranger to exchanging angry emails with journalists and critics who he felt got it wrong. Following on from the critical mauling and disastrous box-office performances of Alone in the Dark & BloodRayne, Boll was in no doubt that the haters were to blame and cranked his hands-on/confrontational approach up a level by challenging his harshest critics, the most vicious forum-posters and even a couple of Hollywood directors to a series of ten-round boxing matches. Understandably, the vast majority declined but by June 2006, Boll had four willing contestants – three internet film critics and a webmaster/CEO of a gaming website – to fight in back-to-back bouts in an event tagged Raging Boll.
In front of thousands of geeks streaming live-feeds over the internet, Boll comfortably won each fight. Being the showman, he allowed each opponent to show-boat for twenty seconds before bashing back by connecting some hefty punches, leaving them shocked, bleeding and vomiting.
The predominantly pro-Boll crowd inside the venue (mainly comprising of his cast and crew) lapped this up as Uwe sent out a message to all internet tough-guys (be they fanboys, bloggers or online critics) that there are consequences to posting hateful comments online, comments which can have a devastating effect on the careers and private lives of the targeted individuals. This represented a particularly shallow victory though, not so much a triumph of good over evil but rather a cheap trick in which Boll, a decent amateur boxer, made himself feel better by beating up some nerds. Boll claims each opponent had three months to prepare, his opponents counter-claim that Uwe had failed to live up to his promises of providing basic fight training and to pull his punches on the big night.
After all of the bouts had been fought, three of the four opponents (somewhat surprisingly) admitted to a new found admiration for the man who proved himself to be at least a world-class self-publicist and were later rewarded with cameos in Postal (although it turned out that only two of them had ever written anything negative about Boll, the other two were chancers who had grabbed the opportunity to appear in such an audacious publicity stunt). One of the critics even took up Boll’s invitation to meet at his beach apartment the next day and talk frankly about why his films are so derided. Even though they had to agree to disagree, the critic came away with a picture of Boll not as a cynical businessman, but as someone with a profound love of cinema who was willing to do anything in order to carry on making films.
This softening of stance didn’t play well with the hardcore haters who refused to see Boll in a more positive light. When Uwe announced that he would be releasing a film version of the ultra-violent and sardonic videogame franchise Postal and had bought the rights to several other titles, a fanboy decided to draw a line in the sand. Their simple action caused shock-waves through the film industry and appeared to push Uwe Boll, a man who had already endured gargantuan quantities of personal abuse, over the edge into full blown psychosis.
Coming up in part five…Game Over: the genuinely shocking denouement to Uwe Boll’s Videogame Years.
Combining a practice hundreds of years old and much more recent developments in the spread of information, the e-petition has proved itself a tool capable of empowering individual citizens and ensuring that their voice has a chance of being heard by a potentially global audience. Whilst the majority of the hundreds of thousands of e-petitions launched achieve only modest success, they can occasionally capture the public’s imagination and incite profound political, social and/or cultural change from the grass roots upwards. In late 2006, in the wake of Alone in the Dark, and BloodRayne, and the decidedly one-sided boxing matches, and the announcement of even more videogame adaptations, the following e-petition appeared.
It proved popular with certain web forums and had amassed around 20,000 signatures by the time Dr Boll (he has a doctorate in literature) was asked about it in an interview and made the throwaway comment that only when a million people had signed would he quit. A day later the number of signatures had more than doubled. A chewing gum company leapt on the bandwagon by offering all the signees a free packet of gum if they hit the target. Like a snowball turning into an avalanche, the popularity of the movement increased in mass, speed and destructive capability. Fearing he had made a catastrophic PR disaster, Boll challenged someone, anyone, to launch a pro-Boll petition and validate his right to continue making films. There were no takers, and what’s more, the number of signatures on the anti-Boll petition rose from tens of thousands into hundreds of thousands.
Boll responded with a series of deranged Youtube videos in which he lashed out at Hollywood liberals George Clooney and Matt Damon as well as picking (virtual) fights with Michael Bay and Eli Roth whose soulless, tedious and formulaic dross, Boll argued, made them more deserving of the tag of world’s worst director. A sound argument, but Boll then undid his good work by branding them all ‘fucking retards’. Appearing increasingly psychotic, Boll then accused Michael Bay and Steven Spielberg of repeatedly signing the anti-Boll e-petition under different aliases. The petition eventually stalled in the mid-three hundred thousands as, presumably, Bay and Spielberg were too busy making the latest film in the wildly successful but critically derided Transformers franchise.
This unfocused paranoid rage came to a head with Postal. Stinging from the spectacular failure of BloodRayne and all the negative publicity regarding the e-petition, Boll rewrote the brooding Taxi Driver-style script as a wild, taboo-busting tirade against the fanboys that hated him, the film industry that shunned him, the politicians and religions that drove the War on Terror, elderly Asian drivers and a certain German director making films for nobody. Potential distributors and established actors, fearing attack from Islamic fundamentalists, all ran to the hills. In America, the film’s release was down-scaled from nearly two thousand theatres to just a handful. In a typically bullish mood, Boll stood firm and declared that it was the world which had to change, not his film.
In retrospect, Postal‘s lack of big name actors works in it’s favour. Performances from the largely d-list acting talent are far more committed and likeable than in previous Boll joints. Although many critics and fanboys hated it, the phrase ‘he’s finally made a half-decent film’ entered the Boll lexicon and would continue to be sighted on a semi-regular basis as Uwe’s oeuvre slowly but surely developed. After the now traditional opening weekend disaster, Postal went on to make largest profit of all the videogame adaptations.
Despite his much reported unbalanced mental state, Boll displays commendable self-awareness by appearing in Postal as himself. Dressed in traditional Bavarian lederhosen, Boll is being interview to promote the opening of Little Germany, his Nazi-themed fun park, and delights in shocking the crowd by making jokes about Auschwitz and confessing to funding all his films with Nazi gold. The creator of the Postal games franchise, Vince Desi, sneaks onto the stage, denounces Boll for ruining his game and then attacks him. Boll fights back (wearing boxing gloves) but is shot in the groin, uttering ‘I hate videogames’ before unconvincingly dying on stage.
Although he would go on to make sequels to BloodRayne and In the Name of the King, Uwe Boll’s death scene in Postal, combined with the changes to the German tax laws and the negative publicity generated by the e-petition, marked the end of the videogame years. It also marked the point that the man whose films were so enjoyably bad shifted his main inspiration toward far darker topics – serial killers, massacres, acts of genocide in Vietnam and Darfur, and to a re-occurring fascination with The Third Reich which saw him make cameos as Hitler (in Blubberella) and, even more worryingly, as a Nazi officer guarding a concentration camp gas chamber (in Auschwitz) putting the antics of Gaspar Noé, Lars von Trier and all the enfant terrible of cinema in the shade.
As The Videogame Years stretches its legs, brushes the popcorn off its lap and shuffles toward the exit, I must confront an uncomfortable truth. Whilst Boll possesses admirable levels of determination and belligerence, I must admit that my (genuine) enjoyment of these films has been from an ironic perspective, I’ve been laughing at and not with. Hello, my name is Captain SuperCool and I’m a film snob.
Have I gained anything from this whole sorry exercise? Yes indeed I have. My cinematic horizons have been broadened immensely and I’ve learnt to think critically about all kinds of cinema – the established classics, passing fancies and prize stinkers. I realise that this hardly makes me a pioneer or a cultural cosmonaut but my time with Uwe Boll has changed me. And whether this represents growth or regression, its a character arc, damn it.
So you leave me squinting moodily into the middle-distance with my relationship with Uwe at a cross-roads. Only time will tell if these films will retain a place in my heart as mind-less good fun, or, just as likely, our relationship will be the kind which I’ll look back on in several years time with a grimace of shame and wonder just what the hell I was thinking.
But let’s end this on a positive note.
Whether he’s a talentless bully deserving of all the bashing, a Machiavellian mastermind who’s played us all like suckers, or actually the king of some minor sub-genre, if Uwe Boll (just like the Lord God Almighty) didn’t exist he would need inventing, if only to give blog writers and self-confessed film snobs a funny and sad story that warrants telling.
And to occasionally beat the crap out of fanboys.
Coming up maybe never…Uwe Boll – The Holocaust Years.