It’s scary how much misfortune befell these films that should have been hits.
To celebrate this most unfortunate of days, you could sit down with a marathon of “Friday The 13th” flicks. Or you could make variety the spice of fright, and sample one of the many horror films and creature features that deliver the goods, yet ran into bad luck that prevented them from achieving the success they should have had upon initial release. From issues during shooting to (more often) mistreatment by studios and distributors, all of these movies deserved better—and most have seen their reputations burnished in the years since. And one of them is, in fact, a “Friday” film…
In this post-“South Park” era, the anarchic humor that hilariously runs riot through Alex Winter and Tom Stern’s monsterama has been thoroughly mainstreamed. Back in 1993, though, a regime change at 20th Century Fox left the film in the hands of executives who didn’t get it, and they changed the title (from Winter and Stern’s preferred “Hideous Mutant Freekz”), slashed the postproduction and marketing budgets and tossed the movie into a release whose venues could be counted on one hand. It has since found a devoted following, though sadly, an extras-crammed two-DVD edition released in 2005 is now long out of print.
Many “Friday” fans consider this the best of the Paramount Pictures sequels, thanks to the visual style and satirical humor that writer/director Tom McLoughlin brought to the masked one’s resurrection. The franchise’s fortunes had been trending downward, though, and it didn’t help that the studio abandoned its traditional spring opening to place “Part VI” in the middle of the horror-filled summer of 1986. It opened in the wake of “Poltergeist II: The Other Side,” Tobe Hooper’s “Invaders From Mars,” “Psycho III,” “Aliens,” Stephen King’s “Maximum Overdrive,” and “Vamp,” with “The Fly” waiting in the wings; the result was that it was the first “Friday” to open below first place on the box-office chart, and to gross less than $20 million.
Rodman Flender’s gruesomely inspired combo of horror and stoner comedy, about a teen with a demonically possessed right hand, had a bright cast led by Devon Sawa, Seth Green, Vivica A. Fox and a pre-stardom Jessica Alba, and a studio (Columbia Pictures) solidly behind it. The originally intended tagline “The comedy that gives horror films the finger” had to be softened to “…the backhand,” but otherwise, the signs were pointing toward a successful release. Then, 10 days before its April 30, 1999 opening, the Columbine High School massacre took place—and despite the fact that its mayhem is supernaturally inspired, fantastically exaggerated and does not involve guns, “Idle Hands” became the poster child for irresponsible youth violence in movies. It was too late to delay the release, and the movie never recovered.
The combination of up-and-coming director Michael Mann and a best-selling source novel by F. Paul Wilson promised big, classy, scary things. Then the troubles began, from Mann’s uncertainty of how he wanted the central monster to look, to the death of veteran effects supervisor Wally Veevers early in postproduction, to negative test screenings that led Paramount to cut Mann’s two-hour version to 96 minutes, making a mess of the story. “The Keep” flopped when it opened in late 1983 and still has yet to get its due on disc, though even this bowdlerized version has its fascinations; perhaps the upcoming documentary “A World War II Fairytale” will inspire new appreciation and a proper Blu-ray restoration.
After a string of features released the way he envisioned them, George A. Romero encountered his first serious case of studio interference on his 1988 adaptation of Michael Palmer’s novel. Orion Pictures nixed the writer/director’s chilling original conclusion in favor of a happier ending—yet also insisted on adding a cheap jump-scare to its final minutes. Then they gave it a misleading ad campaign centered around a monkey-with-cymbals toy, which appears nowhere in the movie itself. Thus, it bombed in theaters, and remains a seriously underappreciated entry in Romero’s canon.
Tackling the much bigger follow-up to his 1987 breakout first film “Hellraiser,” Clive Barker couldn’t have seen that the future of his horror epic would be fraught with problems. 20th Century Fox made a shambles of Barker’s vision, insisting on reshoots and hacking the life out of its story. When “Nightbreed” finally hit theaters in early 1990, the posters and newspaper ads made it look like a cheap woman-in-danger flick instead of a sprawling showcase for the filmmaker’s imaginative monsters. Only in 2014 did Barker’s vision receive its due with a Blu-ray release of his intended cut.
Special effects wizard Stan Winston was coming off his Oscar-winning work on “Aliens” when he made his directorial debut on this first-rate horror fable, featuring Lance Henriksen and an excellent creature. They didn’t have much of a chance to make an impression on theatrical audiences; De Laurentiis Entertainment Group, which produced the movie, went bankrupt, and the film was acquired by United Artists, who gave it negligible regional distribution beginning in the fall of 1988 (under the generic title “Vengeance: The Demon” in some territories). It took the subsequent video exposure to give “Pumpkinhead” the cult rep that resulted in sequels, comic books, model kits, etc.
Dimension Films’ acquisition and release of Greg McLean’s controversially brutal “Wolf Creek” resulted in solid financial returns at the end of 2005—so, as they were known to do, the Weinsteins “rewarded” that success by dumping McLean’s follow-up two and a half years later. Pitting “Alias” star Michael Vartan, Radha Mitchell, Sam Worthington, “Creek” villain John Jarratt and, in her second feature, Mia Wasikowska against an oversized crocodile, “Rogue” is in the upper echelon of angry-nature adventures. Too bad that almost the entirety of its U.S. release was on video, with cover/promo art that made it look like just another made-for-cable schlocker.
Joseph Ruben’s fact-based psychological chiller about a deranged family man boasted a wicked script by popular author Donald E. Westlake and a galvanizing early turn by Terry O’Quinn in the title role, not to mention strong reviews. What could go wrong? Well, distributor New Century/Vista couldn’t figure out how to sell a movie that, from a marketing standpoint, fell between being a classy adult thriller and a teen-scream picture. Campaigns ranging from explicit to review-driven throughout the first half of 1987 didn’t work, and once again, it took home formats to deliver the audience it deserved.
One of the most conspicuous undeserving financial failures of all of horror history, John Carpenter’s now-classic remake had the bad timing to open in the summer of 1982, which was dominated by the friendly alien of “E.T.” and the PG frights of “Poltergeist,” on the same day as another auteurist science-fiction thriller, “Blade Runner.” In addition, his terrifying combination of who’s-the-enemy? paranoia and spectacularly gruesome Rob Bottin monster work was greeted with unconscionably savage notices by critics who couldn’t see past the latter to appreciate the former. To add injury to the insults, the Make-up and Hair Stylists Local 706 union won $10,000 from Universal Pictures in a legal dispute over Bottin’s “special makeup effects” credit, successfully arguing that his work involved “mechanical devices, mannequins and non-living things” that did not qualify as makeup.