We’re all familiar with the break-out quote—you know those little bits of excerpted reviews that festoon trailers, posters, newspaper ads, DVD cases and nowadays the internet. They always assure the viewers—usually in fewer words than found in the average Twitter tweet—of the untold delights awaiting them if they’ll plop those spondulicks down at the box office. Problem is they aren’t always exactly honest.
Now, there are ways to protect yourself from being bamboozled by brazen ballyhoo of the flapdoodle kind. First of all, pay attention to the sources. I know this is hard to do with TV spots, which tend to assume the viewer has spent years training with Evelyn Wood. Actually, they probably hope you haven’t so you can’t possibly know that the phrase “Best movie I’ve seen in 10 years!” was actually uttered by someone in Busted Hump, Mississippi on a morning TV show at 6:30 right after the report on hog futures. The fact of the matter is that any studio that can only dredge up a review from television is probably having a hard time finding anyone who said something positive about the movie they’re hawking.
In case that sounds too harsh a thing to say about my brethren in broadcasting (and don’t forget, I do radio reviewing, too), I’ll gladly note that there are some pretty dubious print review sources, too. I’m personally always a little skeptical of reviews coming from certain parties. Put bluntly, if Pete Hammond has praised a film, dig a little deeper. If he’s been one of a very few people allowed to screen a film, double your skepticism. (There are others, but he’s pretty notorious.) Now, having said that I do not subscribe to concept of a critic invalidating himself or herself because they praised an out-of-left-field movie that most critics panned. (Fanboys are quick on the trigger with this approach.) The question is whether they do it consistently. At the same time, I work on the belief that anybody who fell for being told that Nancy Drew (2007) was a “must-see” movie fully desered to sit through Nancy Drew—and they’re getting no sympathy from me.
Then there’s the imaginary critic. Credit Sony Pictures marketing for more or less dreaming up this short-lived phenomenon where a totally fabricated reviewer named “David Manning” heaped gobs of praise on such Sony releases as Hollow Man (2000), Vertical Limit (2000), The Patriot (2000), A Knight’s Tale (2001) and The Animal (2001). Manning ostensibly wrote for a Connecticut weekly, The Ridgefield Press, who were surprised to learn of this, since the paper had never heard of him. My guess is Sony pressed their luck by suggesting that anyone would call Rob Schneider’s alleged comedy The Animal “another winner.” Actually, the idea wasn’t entirely new. In the twilight of the winter of his career Bob Hope—or, more likely, his “people”—planted ads in the trades featuring gush from bogus TV reviewers about his increasingly lame TV specials.
It all sounds pretty easy, doesn’t it? All you have to do is have a working knowledge of critics and pay attention to who made the claim that your life will be incomplete and your social standing destroyed if you don’t see I Am Legend (2007)—which Jeffrey Lyons (another one to watch) called “one of the greatest movies ever made”—you’ll be fine, right? Well, not exactly. There’s also the interesting process of cherry-picking a review.
This can include the incredibly vague or “Is that from a good or a bad review?” quote. These work on the assumption that the person reading the quote will assume the review must be good or it wouldn’t be used to hawk the movie. That may or may not be true. One of my favorite—and sadly missing—collectibles was a British half-sheet for Ken Russell’s Savage Messiah (1972). It used quotes like, “Reveals Miss Helen Mirren in a scene longer than the normal glimpse.” Now, it’s obvious at what part of the public interest this is aimed (and it’s a good barometer of how much more lurid UK publicity is than ours), but is it from a good review? Beats me, but it’s nothing compared to, “Leaves me feeling as if I’d been beaten over the head and pummeled in the chest.” Good or bad review? Your guess is as good as mine. In this case, I don’t care because it’s a terrific movie.
That approach is fairly benign actually. But there’s the other, more deliberately misleading one that involves picking a sentence fragment out of a bad review that makes it sound otherwise. Thereoretically, the unscrupulous promoter could go through my review of the recent Furry Vengeance and pull this out of it—“it’s going to be a struggle to beat this one.” Yeah, that’s in there, but the whole sentence reads, “We’re not even halfway through the year yet, but it’s going to be a struggle to beat this one for Worst Picture of the Year.” (And that was one of the nicer things in the review.) Still, I couldn’t claim I didn’t say “it’s going to be a struggle to the beat this one,” could I? It’s not likely to happen, but neither is it impossible.
Theoretically, critics are supposed to asked for permission to use quotes. Theory, however, often proves to be just that when fact comes into play. The only studio that’s ever asked permission to use quotes from me (and I’ve no idea if they did) was Apparition as concerned my review of The Square this year. With places like Rotten Tomatoes as an aggregator of critical thought, it’s pretty much open season for quotes. I remember thinking I was being kidded when someone told me I was quoted on the DVD case for a release of Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). I’ve written about the film in some depth in a few places, but it seemed unlikely to me that these would draw attention. I hadn’t reckoned on having done a “Quick Rating” for it on Rotten Tomatoes—“One of the key films of modern horror” and that’s what they’d gone for. Actually, since it was a one-line “review,” no excerpting was necessary.
I was more surprised to receive my DVD of the newly released Joseph L. Mankiewicz film People Will Talk (1951) and see that the “Ashville [sic] Mountain Xpress” had called it a “brilliant comedy.” (I guess if I’d been personally credited, I’d have been “Ken Hank.”) Another “Quick Rating” was the source, but it wasn’t quite as quick as the DVD box claimed, since what I actually said was, “Brilliant, brilliantly subversive anti-McCarthy comedy.” There are other instances I’m aware of, but these are pretty representative and I’ve no complaints.
Even so, I recently came across an amazing case of being “quoted” in a very selective manner. It was this instance that prompted this little article. I doubt many of you have ever heard of a movie called The 13th Alley (2008), which, I assure you, is your good fortune. It’s a rock-bottom horror picture that played in Asheville for a week to a largely empty auditorium (I think attendance was in the single digit range for the whole week). The film was picked up by Carmike Cinemas as one of their “alternate programming” attempts. (Anyone familiar with their “alternate programming” knows this is a bad sign.) The film, in fact, had its premiere at the Carmike 15 in Columbus, Georgia where the corporate offices are. When your premiere is in Columbus, Georgia, you know you’re in trouble. The movie’s purported star, Shayne Dahl Lamas, put on a brave face and—according to the 13th Alley website—made brilliant observations about Columbus like “it’s different and it’s beautiful, really green.” (This is from WTVM television of Columbus.) Their website offers more than this, however.
Prominently featured on the website are these break-out quotes: “Some unknown madman…gory animatronic dogs, cats and crows…this is merely the overture to the orgy of murder to come…” and “Remember the old trick where a film paints itself into a corner and gets out by concluding, ‘It was all just a dream’? Hopkins has brought it back and one-upped it.” No prizes will be awarded to readers who figure out that these are attributed to me. And, yes, those words do appear in my half-star review, but let’s look at the actual sentences. “Some unknown madman” is lifted from this, “In other words, the film sets up a situation in which a lot of dumb teenagers are sliced and diced by some unknown madman.” “Gory animatronic dogs, cats and crows” is out of “The terrorizing takes the form of the leads being beleaguered by gory animatronic dogs, cats and crows as they go about their daily business.” And “this is merely the overture to the orgy of murder to come” is courtesy of “this is merely the overture to the orgy of murder to come. Alas, as orgies of murder go, this one’s more like a junior-high petting party.”
But what of “Remember the old trick where a film paints itself into a corner and gets out by concluding, ‘It was all just a dream’? Hopkins has brought it back and one-upped it”? Ah, well you may ask. The review reads, “Remember the old trick where a film paints itself into a corner and gets out by concluding, ‘It was all just a dream’? Believe it or not, Hopkins has brought it back and one-upped it to arrive at ‘It was all just a hypnotic trance.’ Not content with this triumph, he then grafts on an utterly meaningless Carrie moment after the fact before mercifully giving up.” Maybe it’s just me, but I feel the flavor and intent of my review got lost somewhere in the process.
Do I object to this? Not strenuously, no. I’m more amused by it than anything—and since it appears they could only find two places where anyone actually reviewed the damned thing (the other being the Dread Central website, which was no kinder), I’d say is this more the result of outright desperation than anything else. It does, however, serve as a warning about putting your faith in excerpts from reviews.”