The Skulls (2000) from Johnny Web

There are movies that come to us as outpourings of the irresistable creative energy that longs to escape, that must escape from the soul of the artist.

The Skulls ain't that kinda movie.

It's the kind that's conceived as a marketing project.

You know the drill. A certain amount of money is set aside to make a film which will predictably make more than that amount. In order to do so, the producer targets a moviegoing audience with high viewership habits, and finds a product for that audience. Presumably that product will feature people their age, will support their cultural values, and will fuel their generational superstitions. Then he makes sure to get competent stars who are recognizable to the target audience, but don't cost too much. Finally, he picks a director who can make the product look and sound slick, but who won't do any crazy arty stuff which will turn mainstream audiences off, or spend any money unnecessarily, especially on silly Cimino projects like uprooting redwoods and replanting them in Miami or England or someplace.

By the way, Rob Cohen is a perfect choice for this. Don't be fooled by the fact that he's a 50 year old guy that you never heard of. He's a solid director, a complete professional who knows how to deliver a slick package on time and within budget. And he can turn out some pretty solid stuff, like many episodes of Miami Vice and Thirtysomething. He also made the respected movie, Dragonheart, and when he .. um ... borrows, he borrows from the best. Let's just say it's really obvious that he's seen both Eyes Wide Shut and Barry Lyndon. At any rate, he's a hired hand, and not to blame for this film. I'd be happy to hire him. If he had the right material, he'd make the right movie.

But this ain't it.

Joshua Jackson was also a good choice. (He's the amiable old geezer who plays an excessively verbose teenager on Dawson's Creek, although he looks older than the teachers. Hell, he looks older than MY teachers. He may even look older than Jason Priestly. ) He has all the qualities the filmmakers wanted. He's recognizable from Dawson's Creek, he has a kind of a classy everyman appeal, he seems likeable, he's competent, and (most important) he isn't a big enough star to get a percentage of the gross.

That's why they call it the movie BIDNESS, fellas.

In his scathing one-star review, Roger Ebert wrote a cogent and eloquent sentence about this flick. He said "it's so ludicrous in so many different ways that it achieves a kind of forlorn grandeur". That sums it up so lucidly that there's not much more to say.

Other than the fact that Ebert liked it better than most critics.

Maltin gave it no stars at all.

"The Skulls" is about a secret campus society. Well, not too secret. They have a giant Skull logo on the roof of Stately Skull Manor. This secret society is really a good one to get into if you are an undergrad, because they give you your dream car, and sweeten your wallet. Now you're not supposed to tell anyone if you're in this society. Hmmm .... so if the people on campus see 9 guys driving new Rolls Royces on the same day, and going in and out of an old fortress with a giant skull on the top, do you think they can figure out who might be in the society? Joshua Jackson went from working in the cafeteria one day to driving a vintage T-bird the next day, and when he and his girl went to the ATM, his bank balance was twenty grand richer. Gee, did you get in, Josh? Well, if that didn't give it away, they also get a giant red skull branded on their wrists.

But they can't tell anyone if they're in.

The best scene. Jackson breaks into a room he's never seen before. The room is full of the video tapes of all SkullHouse activity since the invention of tapes, 24/7. The room is several stories high, with tapes floor to ceiling. He disables the guard's eyes with pepper spray, so he has about 30 seconds to find the one he needs for evidence. He finds it. Suppose you were allowed into the Rothschild's wine cellar and had 30 seconds to find one exact bottle of wine, and you had no idea how the bottles were organized. That'd be a lot easier than what he did. Good stuff.

The second-best scene: Craig T Nelson hands Josh a piece of paper and says "this is your pre-acceptance to the law school of your choice". Josh hasn't applied to law school yet. Now what could be written on that piece of paper, ""this entitles bearer to attend any law school, signed, Oliver Wendell Holmes"

And if the Skulls have that much power, why write it down at all?

On the other hand, you have to love a teen movie which features a final duel with old-fashioned pistols.

Well, the unsecret society is back to being secret now, because nobody remembers the movie a couple months later, including the people who saw it. In fact, it's a secret from me, and I watched it about ten minutes before writing this sentence. Who cares? They made it for money, and they got some.

And to top it all off, no nudity either. (Jackson and his girl make love in the shower. They are both fully clothed. Long story, not worth telling.)

Box Office: It worked out pretty much as planned. They invested $15 million, distributed it to 2400 theaters (near blockbuster status), picked up a quick $35 million in gross before anybody was aware of it. So the investors will make a bundle after video sales and rentals.

IMDB summary: 5.3 out of 10.

Rotten Tomatoes summary. The critics raped it. Only 4% positive overall, and 8% from the elite circle. Apollo gave it a whopping 43, Berardinelli a generous one and a half stars.

DVD info from Amazon. If you have enough money to own a copy of this, please consider adopting me. There are deleted scenes, a full-length director's commentary, and one of those "spotlight on location" thingys, but the only special feature that would make it worth owning would be eternal salvation. And even then it'd have to be under ten bucks.

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