Sunday, November 22, 2020

On The Chopping Block: Ratched, Season 1 (2020)

During a month I'm basing around "bad" movies I personally enjoy, it seems fair to talk about at least one property that I find to be genuinely bad and not very enjoyable and, unfortunately it had to be Ratched.

When Ratched was announced, I was es-fuckin'-static: One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest is one of my personal favorite movies and a show that would give the antagonist of said film, Nurse Ratched, the treatment Bates Motel and Hannibal gave to Norman Bates and Hannibal Lecter respectively? I was on board with that and, while a lot of people really hate the guy, I didn't mind that it was Ryan Murphy bringing Ratched to life, as he's responsible for the wonderful and cancelled too soon horror comedy Scream Queens (Read some more of my love of it here) and, while I find it aggressively hit or miss, when American Horror Story is good, it's really good. Murphy's muse, Sarah Paulson, was announced as portraying the titular role, which was a third bit I was excited for. Paulson rarely gets to play villainous roles, even on AHS, so the chance for her to sink her teeth into a wicked role had me giddy. Really, I thought the show had nowhere to go but up.

Well, unfortunately while watching the final product on Netflix, I had one recurring thought throughout the entire season: Where did this all go wrong?

Ryan Murphy muse Sarah Paulson as Nurse Ratched

For starters, it feels like Murphy and the crew didn't even watch the original film or read its source material while making this show. Gone is the raw dramatic feel of Milos Forman's direction and Ken Kesey's writing, instead replaced with a bright, manic and extremely colorful tone. While that usually works for Murphy's other series, it is a jarring choice for a source material that was more or less rooted in reality. As a result, the series suffers as instead of going for the rousing touch needed for this material, we are instead treated to increasing wackiness that includes a revenge plot centered around a self-amputated boy that goes nowhere, multiple characters whom have no reason to exist beyond being plot devices to move certain characters around to their respective destinations and a season ending that manages to rip off both Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill and Jonathan Demme's film adaptation of The Silence of the Lambs. Many critics of Murphy's shows often criticize his works as consisting of excessive amounts of characters, meaningless plotlines and random moments thrown in to inspire viral gifs. Ratched, unfortunately, falls fully victim to these lackluster impulses.

Speaking of excessive characters, let's take a moment to talk about Ratched's stacked cast. Besides Paulson, the ensemble also includes her fellow AHS alumni Finn Wittrock and Jon Jon Briones, as well as Cynthia Nixon, Judy Davis, Charlie Carver and Sharon Stone. Sadly, as I mentioned, most of these performers are wasted in their roles. Wittrock's character lacks any substance beyond just being motivation for Ratched's character to be in the hospital, while Briones's Dr. Hanover amounts to mainly being a patriarchal obstacle for Ratched to manipulate and overcome. Nixon's character serves as Ratched's love interest, but lacks any intrigue that really makes you want to root for the two to be together. I don't even know why Carver and especially Stone were even cast, as their characters ultimately have no purpose and exist...for the sake of adding more melodrama, I suppose? I honestly don't know what made them want to sign on, besides wanting to work with Murphy.

The leading ladies of Ratched

There is one character that manages to almost save the show for me: Betsy Bucket, played by Judy Davis. While Bucket's initial purpose is be an antagonist for Ratched on the same level as her, with the two of them both being nurses, she manages to transform from a cranky foil with an unrequited crush on Dr. Hanover to an empowered ally of Ratched's who takes her former love's place as the head of the hospital. Bucket is the only character in the series who gets a consistent arc and it not only allows Davis to shine, but for her to steal every scene she's in. Including a very memorable one in which Bucket and Ratched feud over the former taking the latter's peach to eat. Not only do Davis and Paulson display superb chemistry and have a dynamic that allows for Paulson to really channel the source material, but Davis, in particular, delivers her dialogue in an almost Tarantino-esque fashion that allows for the humorous scene to feel more organic than other comedic bits throughout the season.

You might have noticed I haven't addressed Paulson yet, which is because that leads into what I believe went wrong with this series. I think the reason behind my disappointment with Ratched can be traced to Murphy wanting to pay tribute to filmmaker Brian De Palma. Not only does Murphy homage some of De Palma's famous filmmaking techniques, including hefty uses of color and split screens, but he also borrows heavily from other works. Many have noted that De Palma often borrowed from other works for his own and, while a lot of the works he borrows from are usually the films of Alfred Hitchcock, he has also been documented as borrowing from himself, such as recycling the twist ending from Carrie for the conclusion of Dressed to Kill. Murphy takes De Palma's dabbling in cannibalization and turns it up to eleven, with many parts of Ratched being recycled from Murphy's previous works. While Paulson's acting is fine, the character she is given is, more or less, a more manipulative and less openly queer version of her Lana Winters character from AHS's second season. There are other examples as well: Stone's Lenore Osgood and Brandon Flynn as Lenore's son Henry are basically the characters played by Wittrock and Frances Conroy in AHS's fourth season, while Briones's Dr. Hanover is a combination of Matt Ross and Joseph Fiennes's roles from AHS's first two seasons. Plotlines and ideas are also recycled from other works, such as Hollywood (The historical alterations and focus on minorities) and Scream Queens (the attempts at comedic hospital hijinks) among others.

When it comes down to it, if you want to see Murphy tackle Cuckoo's Nest in a well-done manner, check out season 2 of AHS, subtitled Asylum, as there are several homages to the film that ring truer than this attempt at adaptation. Otherwise, unless you're in it for Judy Davis like I am at this point, leave Ratched on the chopping block.

Judy Davis as Nurse Bucket, the MVP of Ratched

New Flesh: 31 (2016)

The Film: 31 (2016)

What Is It About?: Taking place in 1976, 31 revolves around a quintet of carny friends (Sheri Moon Zombie, Meg Foster, Jeff Daniel Phillips, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs and Kevin Jackson) whom get kidnapped on Halloween. Soon, the group finds that they are the unwilling players in a game known as 31, hosted by an enigmatic trio of elders known as Father Murder, Sister Dragon and Sister Serpent (Malcolm McDowell, Judy Gleeson and Jane Carr). It is explained by Father Murder that the object of the game is to see which of the five (if any) can survive twelve hours of siege by an escalating series of villains. All leading up to the protagonists sparring with the chaotic and unhinged Doom-Head (Richard Brake), the film's big bad who intends to finish them off to end the game. Will our heroes win, or will Doom-Head and the elders prevail?

Why Do I Recommend it?

So, 31 isn't exactly a lesser known film like the others I've featured in my New Flesh series thus far. However, I wanted to revisit this film for this month to kick off my Guilty Pleasures-themed content block as it gives me not only an opportunity to talk about my fondness for the film, but also to touch upon its polarizing director: Rob Zombie. A lot of people do not like them some Zombie, often criticizing various aspects of his filmography. Including his casting choices, particularly placing his wife Sheri Moon Zombie in all of his movies, his fascination with the 1970s and Southerners and his dialogue style, among other things. Let it be known: Minus the Halloween remakes he made, I think Zombie's films are a total blast and generally enjoy his filmmaking style (or, dare I even say, his auteurship?), and 31 is no exception to that. While 31 isn't some high art film, it's not trying to be that and it (mostly) works at what its trying to achieve. 31 especially is an entertaining experience if you choose to view it as I do: A cinematic video game.

31's structure lends itself to this reading pretty well: As summarized above, the film centers around the protagonists being forced into playing a game by the trio of elders. The three transform the unwilling participants into cyphers for the audience to insert themselves into, taking away the group's numbers and referring to them only by numbers, one through five respectively, and assigning each character betting odds in regards to their chances of survival. The commodification of the characters allows for 31's audience themselves to pick a "player" for themselves, albeit by passively investing in one (as the cinematic format permits) instead of actively playing the role of them within the game. During said game, they face down a series of villains (or bosses, if we're committing to the video game reading) that each get their own introductory scene and each increase in difficulty to fight. Which leads into the final act, in which the remaining protagonists have to square off with the final boss, Doom-Head. The climax revolves around Doom-Head facing off with the last person standing, which happens to be Charly, allowing for the audience to insert themselves into a direct avatar.

The introduction to 31 within 31, setting up the rules and the read of the film as a video game in film format

There are other elements comparable to video games, such as the film's rhythm: After the game plot kicks off, the film settles into a pattern of a transitional scene with the protagonists (known in video games as cut scenes), a villain/boss intro scene, and then a fight sequence. For example, after the introduction of the game 31 to the reluctant players (cut scene), the characters (and the audience) are introduced to the first of the villains/bosses, Sick Head, and then the film immediately transitions to the main five's fight against Sick Head, already in progress. This is sometimes broken up by scenes of the characters exploring their environment (a feature in certain video games that choose to have expansive environments), such as the Rocky Horror Picture Show homage involving the characters having "dinner" and, during the climax, Charly wandering outside in the daylight until she finds the house in which she ends the game with Doom-Head. With all of this in mind, it's visible how the film can be read, at least partially, as a cinematic video game.

Another example of the film's video game qualities: The intro sequence and fight against mini-bosses Death Head and Sex Head

That's not to sell the rest of the movie short, as there's other qualities that make 31 worth watching: In general, it's a fun action horror flick with some great set pieces, especially the battle sequence between the protagonists and Schizo Head and Psycho Head that features a character named Georgina that meets a gnarly end and the film's prologue, which is essentially a six minute monologue from Doom Head as he toys with a priest before killing him. Speaking of Doom Head, the one aspect of 31 even its critics typically agree upon standing out is the performance of Richard Brake as Doom Head. And, honestly? It's worth the hype, as Brake totally immerses himself in his role and fully embodies Doom Head. While the cast is generally good, with Meg Foster deserving a mention for making her character the most likable in the film, Brake is the MVP as he manages to pull off the monologue-heavy role that could be a bootleg Joker in the wrong hands. Some mention must also go to the music within the film: Another marker of Rob Zombie's filmography is the heavy use of classic rock songs, and 31 is no exception. Especially noteworthy are the uses of "California Dreamin'" by The Mamas & The Papas (A song among my personal favorites), and "Dream On" by Aerosmith for the film's final scene. "Dream On", especially, works as it sets the stage for the implied final no holds barred match between Charly and Doom Head. Successfully embodying the desperation Charly has all the way through the film and leading up to what could be her final moments.

In the end, 31, despite its bad reputation, is an engaging experience of a film, especially when viewed as a video game in film format, and one that has more than its share of merits to be deemed at least worth watching.

Available on: Amazon Prime, Tubi, Hoopla, IMDbTV, iTunes & Amazon