Among the many gaps in my knowledge, one of the gappiest involves slasher/horror films. Like, I’m aware they exist, that some smart people like some of them, and that Wes Craven is a personage, but after that I’m pretty much done. So when a Google search led me to the opening scene of Craven’s Scream 4, (2011) it was all new to me.
Take a look.
Having seen the clip, you might be able to guess what my Google search was: “movie in a movie in a movie.” A few other contenders pop up, but this was the best, as we open with (what turns out to be) a scene from (the fictional) Stab 6, which has been watched by characters (played by Anna Paquin and Kristin Bell) from Stab 7, which has been watched by characters (Aimee Teegarden and Britt Robertson) from the “real” Scream 4.
That Russian-doll setup suggests the very self-aware quality of the whole Scream series (I have learned), in which the eerily similar Stab series serves as a sort of running self-conscious commentary. How can you not like a slasher movie where a slasher-movie-slasher-movie-in-movie character (Paquin), scoffs, “A bunch of articulate teens sit around and deconstruct horror movies until Ghostface kills them one by one. It’s been done to death. The whole self-aware, meta shit. Stick a fork in it.” Right before she gets stabbed in the throat by Kristin Bell, who must have loved playing against nice-girl type.
And speaking of self-aware, meta shit, the Scream films have a generous supply of strategically chosen actual movies in them. According to IMDB Scream‘s got Frankenstein, Halloween, Prom Night, and The Thing from Another World; Sceam 2, Nosferatu; and Scream 4,Shaun of the Dead. (Returning the favor, Halloween H20 has a scene from Scream 2.)
I’ve got another movie within a movie within a movie in mind, but I’m curious to see if anyone has some suggestions of their own.
If you’ve never seen Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz (2007), you could think of it as a British Naked Gun (1988), twenty years on. They’re both spoofs of cop movies, but in the interim, the genre pivoted from hard-boiled procedurals to testosterone-fueled, explosion-filled bromances, the ur-texts being Lethal Weapon and Bad Boys.
There are plentiful allusions to both those series in Hot Fuzz, as well as to Mad Max; Man on Fire; The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly; True Lies; Taxi Driver; and Chinatown. A somewhat subtle reference to the last comes in some dialogue between obsessive London cop Nick Angel (cowriter Simon Pegg), who has been transferred to the picturesque town of Sandford because he’s just too damned good at his job, and his bumbling, portly, adoring partner Danny (Nick Frost). They’re talking about the bad guys’ towering henchman, Lurch (an Addams Family reference):
Danny: Lives in the country with his mum and his sister.
Nick: And are they as big as he is?
Nick: The mum and the sister.
Danny: Same person.
A more obvious shout-out is another Danny line: “Forget it Nicholas, it’s Sandford.”
The movie is a lot of fun, something in strong demand as I write this, in the midst of a pandemic. I’m not sure how much you can trust IMDB’s Trivia section (probably not very) but the one for Hot Fuzz says the original script had a love interest for Nicholas, who was jettisoned, and her lines given verbatim to Danny.
I would believe it on the basis of a scene where, after a hard day on the mean streets of Sandford, the two cops unwind at Danny’s flat.
Nick: I just want to be… good at what I do.
Danny: You are good at what you do, you just need to switch off that big ol’ melon of yours.
Nick: That’s just it Danny, I don’t think I know how.
Danny: I can show you.
The meaning of the line turns out not to be what we imagine. Rather, Danny opens the doors to a closet, revealing a huge DVD collection.
Nick: By the power of Greyskull! [That’s a catchphrase from the He-Man and the Masters of the Universe TV series.]
Danny: Point Break or Bad Boys II?
Nick: Which do you think I’d prefer?
Danny: No I mean which do you want to watch first?
They watch ’em both (and in BBII we hear Martin Lawrence utter the immortal line “Shit just got real”–which I will credit to screenwriter Ron [BullDurham] Shelton). But first up is Point Break (1991), the surfing-set thriller with Keanu Reeves as FBI agent Johnny Utah, and Patrick Swayze as the Reagan-mask-wearing bad guy who, in this scene, he finally gets in his sights.
As you can see, Danny is very into the scene, specifically, as he had said to Nick earlier in the film, the way Reeves “goes to shoot Swayze,but he can’t cause he loves him so much and he fires up in the air and he’s going ‘aaaargh’ … Have you ever fired your gun up in the air and gone ’aaaargh’?”
Nick answers in the negative, but by the end of Hot Fuzz one of the boys will have fired his gun up in the air and gone “aargh.” If you’re reading this close to the time of writing, I suspect you have some time on your hands. So watch the movie (it’s available on YouTube, Amazon, iTunes, and most of the usual suspects), and you can find out which one.
We’ve encountered the 1958 Hitchcock classic Vertigo as a movie-in-movie before, in Twelve Monkeys. The Films in Films website reports that it’s been used at least four other times: in L.A. Without a Map, A Kiss Before Dying, Man in the Chair, and Rob Minkoff’s 2002 animated/live-action Stuart Little 2.
As anyone who has read E.B. White’s novel (or has had it read to them) knows, Stuart (voiced by Michael J. Fox) is a mouse who has inexplicably been born to human parents in New York City. As Stuart Little 2 (a sequel to the original adaptation, from 1999) opens, as Stuart is driving in his roadster, an injured canary named Margalo (Melanie Griffith) falls into the car. And Stuart falls for her, as he nurses her back to health.
The clever movie-in-movie scene takes place on their first date. Stuart has rigged up a sort of personal drive-in on the roof of the Littles’ apartment building. At one point, he tells Margalo that he’s repaired her most prized possession, a stickpin belonging to her mother, which was damaged in the fall. As he explains how he fixed it, Hitchcock’s Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart) has a meaningful moment on the California coast with the enigmatic Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak).
The scene actually directly follows the one seen in Twelve Monkeys, probably not intentional on Minkoff’s part.
Vertigo is a funny choice for Stuart Little 2 — both funny unexpected and funny amusing. While Stuart seems to view the Hitchock movie as dreamily romantic, in fact it’s a dark vision of obsession, delusion, and the male gaze. But it was also an appropriate choice for Minkoff and screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin. Both Vertigo and Stuart Little 2 warn us that people — especially ladies — aren’t always who they appear to be.
About midway through Jersey Boys (2014), Clint Eastwood’s biopic of the Four Seasons, the boys have had a hit with “Sherry Darling” but are in desperate need of a follow-up record. They’re in a hotel room with the TV on, as TVs in movie hotel rooms customarily are. Watching are, from left to right, Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young) and the group’s two songwriters, Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen) and Bob Crewe (Mike Doyle).
It’s a good story (leaving aside the problematic but probably historically accurate attitudes toward Kirk Douglas smacking Jan Sterling in the kisser) but it’s not true. Or at least the movie on the tube — Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (1951) — is the wrong one. In the corresponding scene in the Broadway show on which Eastwood’s film was based, Gaudio is narrating:
So now I’m a one hit wonder all over again. Only, what I wonder is, where’s the next idea gonna come from? Crewe and I are banging our heads against the wall and nothing’s coming. And then, one night, I’m watching The Million Dollar Movie. Some cheesy John Payne western. He hauls off and smacks Rhonda Fleming across the mouth and says, “What do you think of that?” She looks up at him, defiant, proud, eyes glistening, and she says: “BIG GIRLS DON’T CRY”
The problem is, “Big girls don’t cry” is not uttered in the one western Payne and Fleming made, Tennesse’s Partner (1955), at least according to Wikipedia. That source cites an alternative origin story from another movie the two actors co-starred in, also under Allen Dwan’s direction : “According to Bob Crewe, he himself was dozing off is Manhattan home with the television on when he awoke to see John Payne manhandling Rhonda Fleming in Slightly Scarlet, a 1956 film noir based on a James M. Cain story. The line is heard in that film.”
Why Eastwood chose Ace in the Hole instead of either of the Fleming-Payne movies is a mystery. Maybe they weren’t available. Or maybe he picked Ace because it’s a better film.
What actually got me looking into Jersey Boys was another scene, mentioned to me by Andrew Feinberg. Gaudio is in another hotel room watching TV, and what should be on but Rawhide, the 1959-66 western starring none other than a very young Clint Eastwood. “That was my way,” the director said in an interview, “of making a Hitchcock appearance.”
The Netflix series Stranger Things has two things in common with The Sopranos. First, it’s very good. Second, a lot of television is watched in it. I just went through the IMDB “Connections” forthe 1980s-set Stranger Things and was reminded that the material visible on characters’ TV sets over the course of three seasons includes the series Knight Rider, All My Children, Magnum P.I., PunkyBrewster, Cheers (three times), and Family Feud (twice), and the movies Mr. Mom, Frankenstein, and The Thing (John Carpenter’s 1982 remake).
The show, which was created by Matt and Ross Duffer, collectively known as the Duffer Brothers, is quite smart about all of this, with the TV stuff often implicitly commenting on the characters and action. Thus Hopper (David Harbour), a well-meaning but perpetually frustrated paunchy cop in small-town Hawkins, Indiana, is shown watching Tom Selleck’s glamorous Magnum. And Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), who is ambivalent about her extraordinary powers, to say the least, is transfixed by Boris Karloff as the monster first imagined by Mary Shelley. As Anna Leskiewicz observed in The New Statesman,
Eleven sits on a sofa, hugging a teddy bear tight to her chest. She’s watching a black and white film on a static-filled TV screen. “Who are you? I’m Maria,” a girl says. “Will you play with me?” It’s the 1931 Frankenstein, and Frankenstein’s monster looks at Maria with the same blank expression Eleven has when she’s learning a new word. As Maria and the monster wonder off, hand in hand, Eleven looks as though she’s on the verge of tears. She’s just a child, but it’s clear that she feels caught between both characters: the monster and the girl.
There’s a lot of what you might call intertextuality going on here. A Terminator trailer turns up on TV in season two, and a major bad guy in season three is Grigori (Andrey Ivchenko), who’s one big Terminator callback, down to the big gun and the Schwarzenegger-esque hairdo. The likable Russian informant Alexei is seen laughing uproariously at a Woody Woodpecker cartoon; a couple of episodes later, he wins a big stuffed Woody Woodpecker at the town fair. The glimpse of John Carpenter’s Thing (a character also has a poster for it in his room) is perhaps an acknowledgement that the demon/monster in Stranger Things is quite Thing-y. In Season 3, Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) cracks open a can of New Coke. (Stranger Things’ shamelessness about product placement is part of its cheesy charm.) His buddy asks, “How do even drink that?” Lucas responds: “It’s like Carpenter’s The Thing. The original is the classic, no question about it. But the remake … sweeter, bolder, better.”
It goes on. Red Dawn (1984) gets several mentions in season three, because the Soviets-take-over-small-town plot of that film is pretty much what’s going in on ST. And, more broadly, the whole series respectfully and artfully borrows themes, look, and vibe of ’80s kids-against-the world movies like E.T.., The Goonies, and Stand By Me.
But only twice do characters see a movie in the theater, both times in season three. In the first episode, “Suzie, Do You Copy?” (written and directed by the Duffers), Steve (Joe Keery) is working at the Scoops Ahoy ice cream shop at the Starcourt Mall, hence the ridiculous sailor suit. He shows the kids a back way to sneak into the mall’s multi-screen theater.
Day of the Dead (1985) was written and directed by George Romero, and is a sort of sequel to his seminal zombie pic Night of the Living Dead. One obvious connection is that zombie-like creatures will indeed show up in Hawkins later in the season. Another is that, as Elena Nicolaou pointed out on Refinery 29, the movie and the series have “uncannily similar music. The Dead Suite, played in the opening scene of Day of the Dead, sure resembles a simplified and slowed-down version of the Stranger Things theme. Those staccato notes in a minor key are staircases to the same conclusion: We’re not headed anywhere good.” The temporary electrical blackout at the mall portends bad happenings as well.
Six episodes later, Steve, his Scoops Ahoy coworker Robin (Maya Hawke), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), and the breakout character of the season, no-nonsense Erica (Priah Ferguson), are sneaking into the mall multiplex again. This time it’s more urgent: they’re on the run from the Russian bad guys, who have given Steve and Robin some nasty bruises and (via a truth serum) a bad case of the giggles.
On the screen, of course, is Robert Zemeckis’s Back to the Future, and Jen Chaney has made the case in Vulture that “Stranger Things 3 Is Basically One Big Back to the Future Homage.” She lists a lot of small and large similarities, including a scene in episode 1 where Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) is late for work (the power outage messed up his alarm clock) and has to get dressed in a hurry:
Jonathan, wearing just a pair of briefs, puts one foot into his pants and loses his balance, falling forward out of the frame.
That is an exact duplicate of what Michael J. Fox, as Marty, does when he tries to get his jeans back on after his first 1955 meeting with the teenage version of his mother, Lorraine. Just in case you didn’t catch these Back to the Future hat tips, the Duffer Brothers, who created the series and wrote and directed this episode, follow them up by blasting a Huey Lewis and the News song — “Workin’ for a Livin’,” not “The Power of Love” — as Nancy marches purposefully to the office.
I have to admit I skimmed a lot of her article. That’s because she dealt with how the season ends and I haven’t watched episode eight yet. I’ve enjoyed this show so much I’ve kind of put it off as long as possible.
Robert Aldrich’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) is a camp classic, a mashup of Sunset Boulevardand Gypsy, with Grand Guignol touches and a cold-eyed look at elder abuse, before the term was coined. The movie opens in 1917. Baby Jane Hudson is a tap-dancing, singing vaudeville sensation; her sister, Blanche, watches jealously from the wings. (And there you have the Gypsy connection. In that 1959 Broadway musical, the child star is named Baby June; her sister Louise is the neglected one. Henry Farrell published the novel What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, on which the movie was based, in 1960.)
Next we’re in a Hollywood screening room in 1935, with executives Ben Golden (Bert Freed) and Marty McDonald (Wesley Addy). Ben doesn’t appear to be happy with the what they’re watching.
Pay attention. In a twist, it’s Blanche who has become the big movie star. Her contract demands that the studio make a Baby Jane picture for every one of hers. Ben and Marty are supposedly looking at work by the grown-up Baby Jane. But actually on the screen are scenes from two real-life 1933 Warner Brothers movies starring Bette Davis, Parachute Jumper and Ex-Lady. Ben’s dilemma is that, as he bluntly puts it, Jane “stinks.” The clips are meant to bear out this assessment.
But do they? True, Davis’s southern accent in Parachute Jumper (her character’s name is “Alabama”) isn’t the most convincing. But on the whole her work seems representative of the time — the years between the end of silent film era and 1934 imposition of the Motion Picture Production Code, when dresses were slinky, underwear was minimal, and both morals and production values were shaky. Certainly, it was sporting on Davis’s part to allow her early work to be presented as an example of bad craft.
Fast forward to the 1962 present. Suburban matron Mrs. Bates (Anna Lee), wearing the full white-gloved June Cleaver look, arrives home to find her daughter (B.D. Merrill — Davis’s real-life daughter) watching an old movie on TV. When she realizes what it is, her face beams with delight.
(By the way, the “sad eye” Margaret Keane paintings on the wall were thanks to Crawford, a big fan of the artist.)
The “fine old Blanche Hudson movie,” as the dog-food pitchman calls it, is in fact Sadie McKee (1934), starring Joan Crawford, Gene Raymond (who smooches her), Edward Arnold (who rescues her from the abusive guy in the nightclub), and Franchot Tone. Unlike the Baby Jane/Bette Davis pictures, it’s presented as an enduring classic. And maybe it’s a bit more polished, but I frankly don’t see all that much of a difference.
We cut to the Bateses’ next-door neighbor Blanche (Crawford), who’s in a wheel chair for reasons that will prove important to the plot but otherwise looks quite presentable; she’s also raptly watching her old movie on the tube as Jane (Davis), who lives with her and has not aged well, walks in. (Again, it was sporting of Davis to agree to wear the grotesque little-girl makeup Jane favors.)
One more piece of good sportsmanship on Davis’s part was not objecting to the use of Sadie McKee as the example of a Blanche picture. It must have dredged up unpleasant memories. A 2017 Harper’s Bazaararticle tied to the release of Feud, a TV miniseries about the making of Baby Jane, described how Davis fell in love with Franchot Tone while making a movie with him in 1935. But Crawford, who met him on the Sadie McKee set, married him, “I have never forgiven her for that, and never will,” Davis said in a 1987 interview.
It appeared that Davis’s team-first attitude paid off, as she was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar for her Baby Jane performance. But that turned out badly. As Harper’s Bazaar reported:
Not only did Crawford campaign hard against Davis, who was the favorite for that year’s Best Actress prize, but she made arrangements to get up onstage herself at any cost. Noting that several of that year’s nominees were unable to attend the ceremony, Crawford offered to collect the Best Actress award on their behalf. And so, when the absent Anne Bancroft’s name was read out, Crawford went up to accept the Oscar on her behalf as Davis watched in shock, and posed happily with Bancroft’s award alongside the night’s actual winners backstage.
In the autobiographical The Big Sick (2017) Pakistani-American comedian Kumail Nanjiani plays a Pakistani-American comedian named Kumail Nanjiani, who meets and falls in love with a woman named Emily Gardner. In real life, Nanjiani’s wife (and co-author with him of the Big Sick screenplay; Michael Showalter directed) is named Emily Gordon. I guess that counts as poetic license.
I really can’t tell you if the couple’s first date in the movie is true to life but it’s pretty funny. They meet cute when Emily heckles Kumail at a comedy club. Well, he calls it heckling when they talk afterwards; she says, “I didn’t heckle you, just woo-hoo’d you. It’s supportive.”
One thing leads to another, and pretty soon they’re back in his apartment watching a movie.
If this did happen in real life, I would be hard-pressed to tell you why Kumail would have shown the uber-schlocky Night of the Living Dead (1969) to a woman on whom he presumably wants to make a good impression. If he didn’t, then I imagine screenwriters Nanjiani and Gordon chose it because the lumbering old-school zombies are funny and Big Sick is, after all, a comedy.
We don’t find out if the couple sees a movie on their second date. On their third date, however, it’s back to Kumail’s apartment and back to schlocky horror: The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971). IMDB’s synopsis: “A doctor, scientist, organist, and biblical scholar, Anton Phibes [Vincent Price], seeks revenge on the nine doctors he considers responsible for his wife’s death.
Emily asks, “Is this your compatibility test? Like, the way people are with Vonnegut or The Big Lebowski?” (An interesting feature of Big Sick is that while he’s the comedian, she gets at least as many funny lines.) Once again, it’s hard to imagine that Kumail actually likes it, or, even more improbably, that he thinks she will. Or maybe his ulterior motive is to show terrible movies so there won’t be any resistance in moving to the next order of businesss. If so, well played, sir.