Last week a writer for the Sydney Morning Herald discovered that Ancient Aliens is still on the air, and he called it “an embarrassment to our entire planet.” The paper must have something against ancient astronauts because this week another article in the Sydney Morning Herald by a different writer takes 30-year-old actor Megan Fox to task for her “weird” belief in ancient astronauts. Fox is a known fan of Ancient Aliens, and the paper quotes her as claiming that archeologists and museums are working to suppress the truth about space alien involvement in ancient history:
“I would love to shadow someone and go on digs. I think it holds the answers,” Fox is quoted as saying. “I wanna go and really see the real stuff that they are not willing to show the rest of the world; ’cos they hide all the real stuff, they don't show us, because humanity would panic.”
Fox, who grew up evangelical, turned to the ancient astronaut theory as a substitute for her Christian faith. However, while the comments above are presented as something new, I discovered that she actually made them in 2011.
The Australian grumbling about ancient astronauts reflected something I read in the Los Angeles Times yesterday: The number of college students majoring in history has declined to just 1.7%. That is astonishingly low given that history was once one of the building blocks of the modern university.
That statistic came in an op-ed by James Grossman of the American Historical Association, arguing that we need more people who are informed and understand history in order to make better decisions. You’ll remember Grossman: He’s the fellow who praises the History Channel, purveyor of Ancient Aliens and its associated fan convention, Alien Con: “History Channel and other purveyors of popular histories play a vital role in stimulating and nourishing Americans’ interest in the past,” he said last year of History’s efforts to create a for-credit college course. Empty calories are not nourishing.
I had extra time to do some reading yesterday because it was the Memorial Day holiday here in the United States. That also meant that it was a bit of a slow weekend for crazy historical claims. I used the relative calm to watch a few movies, something I don’t usually have a lot of time to do. Part of it is because the older I get the less interested I am in sitting through a two-hour block of back to back explosions, and part of it is that there is so much TV I already pay for that it’s hard to justify spending extra money on movies. The greater part of it is probably that TV shows, with anywhere from 10 to 26 hours to tell their season-long stories, have so much more room for shading and depth that movies have come to feel small, thin, and undercooked.
But Time Warner Cable (now Spectrum Cable) gave me a free year of Showtime, so I thought I’d put it to some good use. That didn’t go very well. I saw a documentary called Why Horror? (2014), which purported to examine why people enjoy the horror genre, but which concluded that it involved a psychological need to safely enjoy sadistic and violent impulses, which has never been part of the appeal to me. I don’t really enjoy violence per se, and watching middle aged men in 1980s horror movie t-shirts explaining their favorite mutilations and cackling with glee over violence reminded me how far I have moved from genre super-fans over the years. But it did spark an interest in watching a few horror movies. So, I figured I would try the ones cycling through Showtime.
Last week I tried watching a horror movie on one of the Showtime channels called Venom (2005) from Kevin Williamson, the writer behind Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer, and a host of similar products with diminishing returns. It was a weird, empty film that recalled Last Summer in both general terms and some specific ones but degenerated into a pointless climax I only half remember because I kind of zoned out during it. I tried another horror movie, whose name I don’t recall, but which was so awful I turned the channel.
Then I tried some horror-adjacent thriller called Catch Hell (2014) that was billed as a look at what would happen if a celebrity ended up in a Deliverance-style situation. I wasn’t aware at the time that star Ryan Phillippe (who worked with Williamson on Last Summer back in the day) was also the writer and the director of the movie. It was… a film. It showed its influence from Deliverance a little too much, and by the time the backwoods hick holding Phillippe’s character hostage decided to rape him due to his suppressed homosexuality, it wasn’t much a surprise as it was kind of gross to make the rape scene into the movie’s climax, all but forcing the viewer to read the sexually violent struggle as the viewer’s own culmination. The production values kept the movie above Syfy Original Movie levels of awful, but there wasn’t much to recommend the slight, clichéd, and mostly pointless story, one that had a lot of potential that got squandered early on.
Next up I thought I’d take a break from horror and try a comedy. The promotions for The D-Train (2015) claimed that it was a wacky romp with a nebbish Jack Black trying to regain social standing by convincing a celebrity to come to his high school reunion. That’s a bit like describing Jurassic Park as a drama about modern theme park security systems. Technically true, but it misses the point. I probably shouldn’t spoil the major plot point, the one that derails the premise, but it formed an odd mirror to Catch Hell, with the two films echoing and refracting each other in unexpected ways. While the movie ended up being oddly thoughtful, with perhaps James Marsden’s best performance, I can certainly imagine that a good number of people who paid money to see it felt deceived by the marketing. It was not the movie I had expected.
The Stanford Prison Experiment (2015) was pretty good for what it was, a docudrama about the infamous 1970s psychological experiment in which male college students acted the parts of prisoners and guards until they descended within days into psychosexual torture culminating in simulated sexual assault.
At this point I wondered if Showtime executives weren’t purposely picking movies that dealt with issues of male-male sexuality. It was kind of a weird theme for movies I more or less chose at random without knowing anything about them. I decided to give it one more try.
Last night I watched Wolves (2014), which was advertised as a werewolf movie. It was … well, it had werewolves, so that was correct. And it did run for 90 minutes, which I guess made it a movie. I suppose I’m spoiled by television and the relative depth of even middling TV dramas, but Wolves seemed like a highlight reel from a failed TV series, or, rather, from a heartland version of MTV’s Teen Wolf. Scenes were placed next to one another in a montage that suggested more than the story actually conveyed. The first half hour was virtually incoherent as a high school quarterback (Lucas Till) discovers he’s a werewolf, seems to attempt to rape his girlfriend, and then wakes up to find his parents dead. One draft of the script must have been much longer and connected the dots more. This seems to be confirmed by the fact that Till’s character claims at one point that “time lost all meaning” as he went on the lam for an unspecified length of time and was drinking beers in a bar at a time the movie seems to believe is past his twenty-first birthday. When his real father (Jason Momoa)—a werewolf—discovers him, he claims that Till’s character had been born “more than twenty years ago,” even though the movie’s timeline alleges that the events we see took place only a few days or weeks after the attempted rape and murders, i.e., when he was 16-18 years old. Wolves is a weird mashup of Twilight, Teen Wolf, and Sons of Anarchy, and the worst part is that it thinks itself a franchise, ending with setup for future sequels. Oh, and Till’s character has to save his new girlfriend from his werewolf father, who has set up an elaborate and public rape.
If Wolves works at all, it is because Lucas Till commits to a sublimely stupid role and elevates the material as much as one could. He was very good in Crush (2013) as another high schooler caught up in a horror situation, this time as a wounded soccer star involved in an obsessive romance. That movie, which I think I watched last year, or maybe the year before—I can’t remember now—was essentially a teen version of films like Fatal Attraction but did something quite clever in that the movie starts off imitating a teen romantic comedy before slowly curdling the film into a horror thriller. I appreciated the way it played with genre to elevate an otherwise standard plot.
The funny thing is that because Lucas Till (the future young MacGyver this fall) has been in so many random movies and TV shows, including a large number that I’ve seen, such as the last few X-Men movies, Battle Los Angeles (another not so great film), Stoker, episodes of House and Comedy Bang! Bang!, etc., all of the master computer algorithms that run video sites have abstracted from that the wrong conclusion and have decided that I need to see more Lucas Till movies. That’s the conclusion I came to anyway when I was casting about for something better to watch and one of the recommendation engines told me to watch The Curse of Downers Grove, a 2015 teen slasher movie. Although I aged out of that genre a while ago, it can be fun to revisit from time to time. I gave it a shot, and holy crap was it awful. Not just bad. Really terrible. Lucas Till was in it, in a minor role, which I guess is why algorithms thought I’d enjoy it. (It’s probably a coincidence, truth be told, unless companies are tracking me, Orwell style, across multiple platforms.)
Downers Grove alleges to be a horror thriller about a girl (Bella Heathcote) who is sexually assaulted at a high school party (maybe algorithms actually think I enjoy movies about sexual assault?) and has to fend off the increasingly deranged attentions of her would-be rapist (Kevin Zegers). With a screenplay by Bret Easton Ellis from a 1999 novel, the movie seems to have no connection to the real world, with characters who behave like no real people, in a city that functions under no real laws (including those of logic). Oh, and Tom Arnold is in it as the would-be rapist’s abusive father who is somehow so beloved, feared, and powerful that the police department refuses to investigate the rapist. (Also: The movie established that he lives in another county, but somehow the geographic boundaries of the local police extend that far.) The movie comes to a head in a ridiculous siege of the protagonist’s house (complete with more rape), only to have the whole movie undercut with a final “twist” (involving another attempted sexual assault) that comes out of nowhere and requires flashbacks after the fact to justify. When we learn exactly where Heathcote’s character has been narrating the film from, I couldn’t help but groan. The Lovely Bones this was not.
So the lesson I learned is that I have apparently evolved beyond my younger self’s love of bad horror movies. I also learned that modern (bad) horror movies have run out of ways to shock with violence and have instead turned to sexual assault as their go-to horror. I learned that I do not enjoy sexual assault movies.
Finally, if Lucas Till happens to Google himself and ends up reading this, let’s make a deal. I will promise to watch MacGyver this fall on CBS if you promise to stop agreeing to be in bad genre movies. You are better than that, and my streaming queue will thank you for it.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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