Cruel Intentions (1999) Celebrates its 20th Anniversary. And its 31st. And its 237th.

The mildly kinky teen sex melodrama Cruel Intentions was a major cultural event for audiences in my exact age range. I doubt I’m alone in my personal experience with the film in saying that running my VHS copy into dust in the early 2000s actively transformed me into a burgeoning pervert (and passionate Placebo fan); it was a kind of Millennial sexual awakening in that way. Still, I was shocked & amused to see Cruel Intentions return to theaters for its 20th anniversary last month as if it were a legitimate cultural touchstone instead of a deeply silly, trashy frivolity that just happened to make the right teen audience horny at the exact right time. The commemorative theatrical experience was perfect, with fresh teens in the audience who had obviously never seen the film before gasping and heckling their way through the preposterous, horned-up picture in amused awe. I even somehow found new appreciation of & observations in the film seeing it projected on the big screen for the first time, instead of shamefully watching it alone in my high school bedroom. Some discoveries were positive: newfound admiration for Selma Blair’s MVP comedic performance; awe for how much groundwork is laid by the costume & production design; the divine presence of Christine Baranski; etc. Others haven’t aged so well: its flippant attitude about sexual consent; the teen age range of its central players; its casual use of homophobic slurs; and so on. The most significant effect this 20-years-later return to Cruel Intentions has had on me, though, was in convincing me to finally seek out the work that most directly inspired it – not the 18th Century novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses that “suggested” its writing, but rather that book’s 1988 film adaptation, which Cruel Intentions closely mimics to the point of functioning as a feature-length homage.

Winning three Academy Awards and overflowing with stellar performers at the top of their game (Glenn Close, John Malkovich, Michelle Pfeiffer, Keanu Reeves, Peter Capaldi and Uma Thurman), 1988’s Dangerous Liaisons is far more prestigious than Cruel Intentions, yet its own recent 30th Anniversary went by largely unnoticed. It’s just as overtly horny & sadistic as Cruel Intentions but combines those impulses with the meticulously staged pomp of lush costume dramas – recalling the peculiar tone of genre outliers like Barry Lyndon & The Favourite. Since they both draw from the same novel for their source material, it’s no surprise that this film telegraphs Cruel Intentions’s exact plot: Glenn Close exacts revenge on a romantic rival by dispatching John Malkovich to relieve her of her virginity before marriage (to ruin her with scandal), while Malkovich has his own virginal target in mind that presents more of a challenge (only to inconveniently fall in love with his chosen victim). What shocked me, though, is how much of Dangerous Liaisons’s exact dialogue was borrowed wholesale for the latter film, especially in early parlor room discussions of Close & Malkovich’s respective schemes. Furthermore, Ryan Phillipe’s performance in Cruel Intentions is apparently a dead-on impersonation of Malkovich’s exact line-deliveries & mannerisms, and his opening scene therapist (Swoozie Kurtz) also appears in Dangerous Liaisons as the guardian of one of his sexual targets (later played by Baranski). Cruel Intentions’s title card announcing that it was “suggested by” the 18th Century novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses plays almost a flippant joke in retrospect. The film is clearly a direct remake of its 1988 predecessor, just with some updated clothes & de-aged players to make it more commercially palatable to a late 90s audience. It’s no surprise that I was an instantaneous fan of Dangerous Liaisons on this first watch; I’ve already been a fan of it for two decades solid, just distorted through a late-90s lens.

Cruel Intentions arrived at the tail end of many classic literary works being reinterpreted as 90s teen romances: Emma in Clueless, The Taming of the Shrew in 10 Things I Hate about You, Othello in O, etc. The erotic nature of the source material makes Dangerous Liaisons an awkward candidate for that adaptation template, especially if you pause long enough to consider Selma Blair’s character’s age range as a high school freshman entering the scene . . . Many of its choices in how to update the material for a 90s audience makes total sense: gay sex, racial politics, drug use, etc. I was shocked to discover, however, that the incest element of Cruel Intentions (in which two siblings-by-marriage tease each other throughout) was a complete fabrication. Close & Malkovich are ex-lovers in Dangerous Liaisons, not sister & brother. It’s difficult to parse out exactly who Cruel Intentions was appealing to in that added layer of incest kink, then, since that’s not the first impulse that comes to mind in catering to modern audience sensibilities. Weirdly, that’s one of the film’s more invigorating additions to the Dangerous Liaisons lineage. Overall, there is a noticeable potency lost in the modernization. Characters peeping through keyholes, foppishly being dressed & perfumed by their servants, and firing off barbed phrases like “I’ve always known that I was born to dominate your sex and to avenge my own” feel like they’re getting away with something you can only do in period films, and Dangerous Liaisons benefits greatly from that setting. Still, the way Cruel Intentions translates that dated eccentricity to mocking the perversions of the young & wealthy with too much power & idle time is a rewarding conceit. They look & sound utterly ridiculous in their modernization of the exact horned-up affectations of Dangerous Liaisons’s central players, which is just as uncomfortable considering their age as it is appropriate for their level of privilege: the rich are ridiculous perverts, always have been.

Cruel Intentions is too trashy & commercially cynical to match the soaring heights of Dangerous Liaisons creatively, but I do contend that it admirably holds up on its own. No one in the latter film delivers anything half as compelling as Close’s Oscar-nominated performance of cunning sexual confidence, but Phillipe’s impersonation of Malkovich’s’ villainy is highly amusing in a modern setting. Similarly, Selma Blair’s campy performance as his youngest victim shares a direct lineage with Keanu Reeves’s wide-eyed naivete in Dangerous Liaisons; they both had me howling in equal measure and there wasn’t nearly enough screentime for either. I can’t objectively say that revisiting Cruel Intentions is worth your time if you didn’t grow up with it as a sexual awakening touchstone the same way so many kids of my generation did, but I can say that if you are one of those Millennial perverts, Dangerous Liaisons is required viewing. You already love it whether or not you’ve already seen it.

-Brandon Ledet

Shadow of the Vampire (2000)

Real life is a total bore, which is why most “based on a true story” movies come across as fairly mundane in comparison to revisionist pieces that play fast & loose with the facts. There are few biopics & fact-faithful dramas that can stand up to the entertainment value of Sofia Coppola dressing up Marie Antoinette in Chuck Taylors & Siouxsie and The Banshees or Todd Haynes supposing that Oscar Wilde was a space alien who passed on extraterrestrial queer magic to glam rock gods/lovers “David Bowie” & “Iggy Pop.” These factual liberties always rely on the excuse that they are aiming for a greater macro truth larger in scale than the finer details of reality, but in a more practical sense they also make for better, more interesting art. The early 00s horror comedy Shadow of the Vampire, co-produced by Nic Cage of all people, dives head first into this playful style of historical revisionism in its retelling of the production of the 1922 silent horror classic Nosferatu. On one level, the film aims to capture a greater truth about the essence of Nosferatu, particularly that the film’s power lies in the illusion that its monstrous star, Max Schreck, is a real life vampire & a force of Evil, not just a great method actor in harrowing makeup. Mostly, though, the movie uses that conceit as an excuse to have fun with the setting & aesthetic of a silent film shoot, an excellent springboard for horror-themed comedic absurdity.

Besides its irreverent search for entertainment value over realism, Shadow of the Vampire largely excels based on the casting of its leads. Willem Dafoe’s vampiric estimation of Max Schreck & John Malkovich’s perverted/exasperated straight man visionary F.W. Murnau, the director of Nosferatu, are excellent foils for each other, so similar in their violently ambitious thirsts that the actors could have too easily swapped roles. Dafoe’s physical comedy as Schreck, particularly in the buffoonish rodent faces he makes between takes, somewhat disrupt his illusion of a dangerous monster by turning him into a horny goofball. Murnau’s fear of & exhaustion with Schreck’s antics, which take vampiric method acting to the point of real life murder & blood-drinking, are hilarious in their participation in a straight man tradition. He struggles in vain to maintain normalcy & complete the shoot despite his star (who may or may not be a “real” vampire) gradually murdering his entire crew. The movie has some fun with real-life Nosferatu lore, especially in the detail that it shamelessly ripped off Bram Stoker’s Dracula novel, but mostly just has a laugh at the idea of method acting taken to a cartoonish extreme. There’s a pretty clear road map in that line of humor for a movie to make fun of Jared Leto’s behind the scene antics on the set of Suicide Squad, presuming anyone remembers that film in 80 years. Imagine a comedy about DCEU execs wondering in fear if Leto was just a pretentious ass terrorizing his coworkers with dead pigs & used condoms for no reason or if he was a real life murder-clown. Shadow of the Vampire already delivers that kind of meta movie-production humor, one that works especially well whenever Malkovich & Dafoe share the screen.

Even with its irreverent historical revisionism & violent screwball comedy antics, Shadow of the Vampire still impresses with its sense of visual style. With the intertitles, Art Deco stylization, and wood panel cameras of the silent film era, the movie has much classier stage dressing than what would typically accompany comedies this goofy. As an actor who had to survive Shreck’s vampiric thirsts, Eddie Izzard especially has fun with the vaudeville style vamping that defined the performances in most silent pictures. This is especially amusing in juxtaposition with the snootiness of Murnau’s sense of self-importance & the supposed prestige of black & white filmmaking. Shadow of the Vampire also frames this imagery with the drastic Dutch angles & color filters of a comic book movie to match its over-the-top tone, recalling touchstones like Burton’s Batman & Raimi’s Darkman. Unfortunately, this visual energy doesn’t bleed over much to the narrative style. Shadow of the Vampire is structured in a way where Nosferatu is shot in sequence so that the movie & the movie-within-the-movie can run parallel in their progress. It’s a clever structure that pays off well overall, but something feels frustratingly unrushed in the stretches where the production of Nosferatu is halted due to Schreck’s bloodthirsty ways. Whenever the Nosferatu film shoots are derailed, Shadow of the Vampire feels like a kind of hangout film, very much relaxed in delivering its horror & comedy beats. I don’t especially mind hanging out on these silent horror sets in this comic book vision of 1920s Berlin, but it’s rarely a good idea for a comedy to feel this unintentionally labored.

Most importantly, as an awkward workplace comedy where a madman pervert auteur struggles to maintain order despite his star actor (who may or may not be a vampire) murdering the rest of his crew, Shadow of the Vampire is damn funny. It pretends to deliver the sophisticated, well-behaved tone of a sober biopic, but everything about Dafoe’s squinched-up, bloodthirsty rat faces & Malkovich’s over-the-top exasperation is hilariously absurd. The odd thing is that this tone is just as true to the spirit of the original Nosferatu as the suggestion that Max Schreck may have been a “real” vampire. The actor’s 1922 performance is oddly tinged in slapstick humor, including one scene where he carries his own coffin under his arm that would have been considered “too much” if restaged here. It’s not difficult to see why he’s been resurrected as a half creepy/half goofy comedy icon in films like What We Do in the Shadows & Shadow of the Vampire, even if they had to tear apart the truth to get to his essence.

-Brandon Ledet

Saturday Night (2010)

EPSON MFP image

three star

One of my all-time favorite pop culture documents is Live From New York, the oral history of Saturday Night Live. It’s an impressively thorough work that traces the grueling writer’s room structure of the sketch comedy institution back to the coked-out shenanigans of the 1970s. The absurdly late hours & rapid-fire turnaround that give the show’s more gloriously inane moments their loopy, “Why would someone even write that?” absurdity seem like a very peculiar business practice, but make total sense when considered in the context of their 1970s origins. Over the three decades of SNL covered in the book, not much changes institutionally. The show is like a river that only gradually shifts its course as a constant supply of fresh faces flow through it.

In case you are interested in how SNL functions, but can’t be bothered with the ~700 page task of Live From New York, James Franco has your back. His 2010 documentary Saturday Night was seven years behind the definitive oral history, but is much more easily digestible and covers much of the same territory. The premise is simple: Franco films the one-week cycle of the production a single SNL episode. On the starting Monday, the writers & cast cram into Lorne Michaels’ office to pitch seeds of ideas for sketches that could possibly be developed that week. As the days roll on the crew develops around 50 sketches that get torn down & rebuilt through a series of table readings, producers’ meetings and live rehearsals. They frantically grasp at sketch comedy straws & avoid sleep like the plague with only the faint promise that something they develop makes the live broadcast. After a single day of rest it’s Monday again and they’re pitching sketch ideas for the next SNL host. It’s a punishing/fascinating creative process that may be a hangover of the 70s party scene when rampant drug use could get you through the ordeal, but it’s one that pays off with some of the more bizarre realized ideas on broadcast television for four decades running.

Saturday Night starts with its most amusing moments. It’s genuinely delightful to watch the wheels turn in writers’ & performers’ heads when they’re excited about getting to work on an infant sketch idea. The fun fades a bit as the work gets more difficult, the frustration involved with the detailed logistics of developing a sketch on full display for the camera. Franco’s choice to film a week John Malkovich hosted pays dividends, as his subject is an endlessly fascinating personality even when just standing around idling as the SNL machine swirls around him. Cast members like Bill Hader & Will Forte also carry the film a long way, especially early in the creative process when they’re frantically riffing or selecting fart noises from a sound board. There are a few moments when Franco’s personality becomes intrusive, like a frustratingly useless scene involving Hader’s dressing room mirror & the intentionally conspicuous absence of Amy Poehler, but for the most part he pulls the film off with a calm, low-key tone that benefits the laborious process he documents. Saturday Night is a great companion piece to the more definitive Live From New York book. There are less mind-blowing anecdotes & juicy gossip than in the whopping oral history, but the film brings the day-to-day logistics of the pop culture institution’s unfathomable workload into vivid focus.

Saturday Night is currently streaming on Hulu.

-Brandon Ledet