Alternate Oscars – 1976

I’m going to start picking what should have won the Oscar in a given year. At first, I thought I should provide a lengthy description of why I’m doing this, but that seems pointless: I’m doing it because I think it’s kind of fun to think about. The Academy Awards are pointless and infuriating, but their existence prompts conversations about movies, which is basically what this is. These are argument starters. Here are some criteria:

  • I choose the year using this random number generator. I’m starting with 1970, just because, and it’s unlikely I’ll go any further back.
  • I’m limiting myself to the big three categories: Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Actress, though I might mention an oversight here or there.
  • I’ll be referring to (and in some cases will be inspired by) Danny Peary’s wonderful but sadly out of print book Alternate Oscars, in which he does what I’m doing only in detail and better. All of Peary’s choices are listed here.
  •  I’ll be sticking to five nominees in each category, no matter how it actually played out. I still insist this is the best way to do it, and Mark Harris offers a more persuasive argument than I can.
  • My choices will be neither entirely objective or subjective. I might pick something because it captured the zeitgeist, or I might pick something because it’s an unquestioned classic. Or not. The academy has whims and so do I. But time has shown us that Out of Africa and Gandhi are boring but “important” movies that no one talks about anymore while Dazed and Confused and Memento are awesome and increasingly relevant, so I’m in a better position to judge that than they were.
  • In other words, I have hindsight – as I do below, I might be political in giving the award to someone who gives a knockout performance over someone who will be frequently nominated.
  • Just to narrow things a bit, I’m going to stick to American or English releases, and keep “foreign film” in its own category. The Academy is weird about this, as you’ll see below, in which two actresses from foreign films were nominated, and one of those foreign films (Face to Face) clearly could have been a favorite for best picture. I don’t really have a rationale for doing this, it just seems like it makes things less complicated. If a film has American or British actress or an American or British production company/distribution (like The Artist or Life is Beautiful), I might reconsider.

With that said, here’s my first year: 1976

Best Actress

  • Their pick: Faye Dunaway, Network
  • Nominees: Marie-Christine Barrault (Cousine, Cousin), Talia Shire, (Rocky), Sissy Spacek (Carrie), Liv Ullman (Face to Face)
  • My pick: Sissy Spacek, Carrie
  • Nominees: Geraldine Chaplin (Welcome to L.A.), Faye Dunaway (Network), Audrey Hepburn (Robin and Marian), Talia Shire (Rocky)


Dunaway’s power-tripping and amoral programming genious Diana Christiansen takes her sly sexiness as Bonnie Parker and turns it up to eleven. She’s at once intensely masculine, hopeless neurotic, and dangerously feminine. Yet while it’s a career-defining role, its as much a product of the meaty dialogue she gets to deliver and the world she inhabits as Dunaway’s performance itself.  Dunaway was best at roles that required to be loud and theatrical, and she would never have a role like this again; Mommie Dearest would present her most magnificent piece of over-acting. In this case, she’s a close second. I choose Spacek because it’s so much the opposite: she invests the wilting flower protagonist of Carrie with equal parts silent strength and immature confusion. Spacek seems so out of place in the “scream queen” world of contemporary horror movies that Carrie can be viewed as a coming-of-age story and a domestic drama. In the years since, with several attempts to remake Carrie, all have existed in Spacek’s shadow.

Especially in contrast to the bold, socially adept teenagers around her, Spacek seems out of time and place. Without Spacek’s grounding performance, the movie completely gives itself over to Brian De Palma’s trademark stylistic excesses and leering voyeurism. So many of Spacek’s scenes are silent, which means she creates her character through scared glances and scary reactions, particularly in the bloody finale. As the film is careening and split-screening wildly around her, her sensitive take seems at odds with the movie she’s in, yet still stands out.

Best Actor

  • Their Pick: Peter Finch, Network
  • Nominees: Robert De Niro (Taxi Driver), Giancarlo Giannini (Seven Beauties), William Holden (Network), Sylvester Stallone (Rocky)
  • My Pick: Sylvester Stallone, Rocky
  • Nominees: David Carradine, Bound for Glory; Robert De Niro, (Taxi Driver),William Holden, (Network), Walter Matthau (The Bad News Bears)


Whenever Peter Finch’s Howard Beale appears in Network, he eats the movie – everything changes because of his prophetic, raving pronouncements. Yet Finch’s performance is clearly a supporting one (William Holden gets much more screen time); the Academy clearly elevated it because Finch had just died and they wanted to reward what was an iconic role. In my alternate universe, Finch wins Best Supporting Actor (sorry Jason Robards, who was great), and we get one of the closest races in the history of the awards – Sly Stallone vs. Robert De Niro. Both actors have roles of a lifetime as outcast losers who figure out a way in, though to drastically different effects. Both were New York actors in gritty, urban dramas. It could go either way, and I’m tempted to give it a tie. But while De Niro is obviously the better actor, I’m going to do a little politicking for Stallone. Also, in retrospect, De Niro would have several more opportunities to win this, and had won a supporting Oscar before in both a real and alternate universe for The Godfather Part II.

At this point, critics were comparing Stallone to Brando and Tango and Cash was years away – part of that was because of the way Sly was so understated and sweet. He lacks the lazy, slurring bombast that he would bring to “Cobra.” We like Rocky because he’s nice to caged dogs, sings along with street singers, and is a terrible loan shark. His scenes with Talia Shire are terrific; he would never have this kind of chemistry again with anyone, male or female. The final fight scene is so rewarding simply because it’s impossible to think of a character we’d rather root for. Part of this has to do with the fact that Stallone wrote the movie and refused to let anyone else play the role. Even in the later Rocky movies, Stallone would never again be this good; most of those performances are something of an increasingly ridiculous parody of this one. But what remains one of the most satisfying sports movies ever made is almost completely due to the success of its writer and star.

Best Picture

  • Their Pick: Rocky
  • Nominees: All The President’s Men, Bound for Glory, Network, Taxi Driver
  • My Pick: Taxi Driver
  • Nominees: All The President’s Men, The Bad News Bears, Network, Rocky


As I’ve argued, Rocky was the product of its writer and star, and I realize this downplays the achievement of director John G. Avildsen, who would only re-approach this success when he remade the movie as  The Karate Kid. But Rocky recycles urban tropes in an adequate way more than does much interesting with them: the film succeeds because of winning performances, a great soundtrack, and a great final fight. The nomination should have been the award. Of my five nominated films, The Bad News Bears is superior as a sports movie.

Therefore, I’m going with Taxi Driver. As great as De Niro is, it’s Martin Scorsese’s vision that captures a city, a moment, and a character. Whether with obvious visual language, such as when Travis hopelessly woos a girl on the phone and the camera veers to an empty hallway, or in the subtle moments where Travis is watching television and thinking God-knows-what, Scorsese films the ugly underside as no one ever has. Filtered through Travis’ madness, it’s a dark place that needs saving. We’re never sure how to deal with him – hope for his salvation, or turn him into the cops. Taxi Driver exemplifies the “new cinema” of the 70s in its darkness. The key to Travis’ madness is not that he looks in the mirror and asks, “You talkin’ to me?” It’s the next line – “I’m the only one here.” Taxi Driver captures that here, the scary milieu that either stimulates Travis’ madness or is a product of it; it’s to Scorsese’s credit that we’re never quite sure.

Other awards

  • B.S Actor – Them: Jason Robards, All the Presidents Men Me: Peter Finch, Network
  • B.S. Actress – Them: Beatrice Straight, Network; Jodie Foster, Taxi Driver
  • Stallone’s rival, Arnold Schwarzenegger, could have been nominated for B.S. Actor for his warm performance in the underrated Stay Hungry. So could Richard Pryor, in his best comedic performance in a movie for Silver Streak. But this was a strong year for supporting performances (Jason Robards, Ned Beatty, Laurence Olivier, Burt Young, and Burgess Meredith – Beatty is the only one I’d boot, just because he’s only in the movie for five minutes.)
  • While Haskell Wexler deservedly won Best Cinematography for Bound for Glory (a sadly forgotten movie), it’s ridiculous that Gordon Willis wasn’t even nominated for All The President’s Men.
  • As good as Jerry Goldsmith’s score for The Omen was, it should not have beaten Bernard Herrmann’s for Taxi Driver.
  • It’s just plain silly that Martin Scorsese wasn’t even nominated for Best Director, which is why don’t even consider it as at a category.

They said

  • Danny Peary: The Front, De Niro, Spacek
  • Golden Globes, Drama: Rocky, Finch, Dunaway
  • National Society of Film Critics: All the Presidents Men, De Niro, Spacek

The Pancake Monster


Selections from the transcript of my meeting with Sesame Street from a tape recorder

ME: So when do I get to meet Big Bird?

ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT: (Garbled, unrecognizable talking)

ME: Okay, what about Oscar the Grouch?

ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT: (Garbled, unrecognizable talking)

ME: Do I get one of those tote bags?

ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT: (Garbled, unrecognizable talking)

ME: Yes, I am carrying a tape recorder.


PBS Executive: So what would the Pancake monster do?

ME: He could teach kids to count, using pancakes.

PBS Executive: But that’s what the Count does.

ME: Right, but the count uses numbers. The pancake monster uses pancakes.

PBS Executive: It sounds very similar to the Cookie Monster.

ME: Who?

PBS Executive: The cookie monster is a very famous character.

ME: I’m sorry, I’ve never heard of him.

PBS Executive: Are you recording this conversation?


ME: …so the pancake monster attacks people who are eating pancakes. And says, “paaaannn-caaaakes.” That’s all the pancake monster ever says. And then eats their pancakes.

PBS Executive: I have to admit,  he sounds . . .

ME: She

PBS Executive: Excuse me?

ME: She – the pancake monster is a she.

PBS Executive: Well, SHE sounds very similar to a zombie.

ME: Right, she is a zombie, but instead of human flesh, she eats pancakes.


ME: People love zombies. They’re very hip right now. Didn’t you see WORLD WAR Z?

PBS Executive: But don’t you think a zombie character would scare small children?

ME: Yes, that’s the point.

PBS Executive: Did you turn the tape recorder on again?

ME: What tape recorder?

PBS Executive: I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to ask you to leave.

ME: How about this – did you ever see BLUE VELVET?

PBS Executive: I’m calling security. Please give me my pen back.

ME: So when do I get to meet Big Bird?

A Philip Seymour Hoffman Clip Retrospective

It’s interesting to think about the kinds of careers Philip Seymour Hoffman could have had. You wonder what would have happened if he had started his career on Saturday Night Live because he was so funny. He was the best thing about the banal and depressing rom-com Along Came Polly, playing a character who should have occupied his own movie – a former teen star who shouts “let it reign” whenever he shoots a basketball.

And in case you think this is a one-off, this extra from the DVD of Punch-Drunk Love has to be seen:

Hoffman had an element of Falstaff’s ridiculous and dramatic grandeur to him: it’s a shame he never got a chance to play him. His characters were shaggy, rotund, frequently drunken, and in love with himself. There’s an element of this, however submerged and sophisticated, in Capote and The Master. In the latter, he’s a guru who likes a little rubbing alcohol in his orange juice. But it’s nowhere better than Almost Famous, probably the signature role of a guy who made many, many great films. As Lester Bangs, he’s a manic junkie on life, a goofball scenester who’s smarter than you. Since I’ve read two books of Bangs’ music reviews, I can confirm that he’s internalized every aspect of what made his prose great.

As Matt Zoller Seitz writes in this touching retrospective, Hoffman was remarkable at playing  smug, privileged, and self-righteous. In one of his first roles, he plays “George Willis Jr.” in Scent of a Woman, the cocky rich snot who manipulates Chris O’Donnell’s scholarship kid. O’Donnell’s performance is so wooden and unformed that it requires young “Philip S. Hoffman” to make him sympathetic by contrast and to give us any chance of caring about such a cipher. He brought this sociopathic sense of disdain and bemusement to roles like Mission Impossible III that might have otherwise been a throwaway. In Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, he gives the most unique performance of his career as a guy who lives in a weird and dangerous space between desperation and absurd self-confidence.

His great movies will be revisited over and over in the coming weeks. We’ll hear much about his collaborations with Paul Thomas Anderson, for reasons that don’t need to be explained here. But there’s three that no one ever talks about anymore. In David Mamet’s underrated if somewhat pompous 2000 satire State and Main, Hoffman plays a screenwriter who grows increasingly frustrated by the system. Amongst a bunch of lifetimers great at gaming the system, his frumpled confusion makes him the audience surrogate. While a bunch of other great actors (Alec Baldwin, William H. Macy, David Paymer) are playing Hollywood types, Hoffman plays a living, breathing human who doesn’t realize he’s being chewed up and spit out. In this scene, he responds to phoniness not with more phoniness, but with exhaustion and bewilderment.

In  2003’s Owning Mahowny, he plays a gambling addict driven by no other need than his compulsion. In every scene, he’s thinking about the money he can win. Cinematic gambling has rarely looked so seedy, joyless, and workmanlike. The most compelling aspect of his performance is that we realize what he realizes, which is that his addiction is the only thing that makes him interesting. Though he had been great in supporting roles, this is one of the first times he’d ever owned a movie:

But Love Liza, I would argue, is the movie that captures everything you love about Hoffman. It’s one of the strangest films I’ve ever seen, and it doesn’t always work. Directed by actor Todd Louiso, written by Hoffman’s brother, it’s a film about a guy who responds to his wife’s suicide by sniffing copious amounts of gasoline. Ideally, it’s a movie about grief and reflection, but it’s impossible to get past that strange premise (which seems kind of gimmicky). Love Liza is a difficult movie to watch; I seem to remember it was marketed as a comedy, when it’s really another dark movie about addiction.

Nonetheless, Hoffman invests this inarticulate, emotionally detached loner with his trademark mix of sympathy and arrogance, and it’s a thing to behold. This is the most cliché statement you can make about an actor, but I have no idea how he goes there and how he makes this work. He refuses to let us laugh at his glue-tripping, and yet we also never feel totally sorry for his bad behavior.

I’ll close with Roger Ebert’s description of the performance:. It makes me kind of emotional reading through it.

“There is a kind of attentive concern that Hoffman brings to his characters, as if he has been giving them private lessons, and now it is time for their first public recital. Whether or not they are ready, it can be put off no longer, and so here they are, trembling and blinking, wondering why everyone else seems to know the music.”

(After I finished this, I remembered his sad, thoughtful role in 25th Hour. God this guy was something else).

What Do You Get If You Cross The Man of Steel With A Hot Vegetable Broth?

(If you haven’t seen the wonderful Superdickery, don’t read this. Go there instead.)

Just saw MAN OF STEEL. I should have listened to everyone who hated it. It’s a joyless, humorless, bleak, violent film. I didn’t smile once, never laughed. In place of Donner and Lester’s love for a certain kind of nostalgic screwball spirit (which at times veered towards overkill), it’s militaristic, bullet-fueled spectacle. It’s special effects are glum and mechanical; it’s minor characters forgettable, military types: where’s Jimmy Olsen? I even missed Ned Beatty as Otis, particular when watching Michael Shannon and Russell Crowe have a glower-off about a “codex.” Terence Stamp brought a bit of Edmund and Iago to General Zod – bemused by his own badness. Shannon, who can be awesome in the right part, might as well as be delivering his lines to a computer (which, when he’s talking to Jor-El, I guess, he is). The movie relies on space-age technology to justify its leaps of logic. Superman and General Zod shoot lasers from their eyes, which is probably the reason Snyder wanted to make this move in the first place. And even for a movie not called Demolition Man, there sure is a lot of demolition, man.

The original Superman movies got increasingly more ridiculous, until finally they fell under the helm of cheapskate shlock merchants Golan-Globus and featured Jon Cryer as “Lenny Luther.” Richard Donner took the material seriously, investing it with a sense of mythos that sometimes overdid itself. For instance, when Superman flies it’s inherently poetic; we don’t need Lois Lane to offer her own poetic monologue to tell us this. But John Williams’ (dearly departed) score was awe-inspiring even when the movie was not, and it did the ethics of superpowers thing well enough even amidst a lot of ground-laying and jokes for the kids. Here is a line I never thought I’d type: “Margot Kidder is much better than Amy Adams.” Which isn’t Adams’ fault – she’s ideally cast for a role that no one bothered to write for her. Superman Returns went broad, and it treated the original Donner  movie as though it set a cinematic tone that couldn’t be violated. And it gave Superman a kid. Still, it feels like got the tone right, whereas this one is filmed seems washed free of color. Maybe I’m just old-fashioned, but I like my pancakes round and my Superman movies bright and colorful.  Yet since 2006, we’ve only further confirmed the set of commercial tactics from the Bond and Batman reboot playbook. I know that the new spin for reboots is, “You know what this story needs? Intense realism.” And I guess the box office success of this will validate that.

When Watchmen came out, I remember an ad calling Zak Snyder a visionary; that’s hilarious – his entire aesthetic is defined by absence of vision, literally. Here, the movie is often a confusing mess of CGI shots and live-action inserts.  He frequently uses smoke and dust to obscure the action. The best parts of Watchmen were simply reproducing panels, which says more about the set and costume designer than the director. A student of mine suggested that his disastrous Sucker Punch is a movie with a weird, demented personality that demands to be pondered. Nathan Rabin notes that, Sucker Punch “aims to lure us into an exciting world of adventure and excitement, and then force us to concede our complicity in the exploitation, objectification, and dehumanization of the women onscreen,” even if it ultimately failed to pull it off. So Snyder is a director of startling, stupid ambition, and we’re going to be seeing a lot more of him.

My final point: LONE RANGER was ten times as good as this.

(The answer to the joke: Souperman!)

Going to Chicago for MLA! – A hypothetical budget

Good news! I am a hypothetical job candidate and I just got word of my first hypothetical MLA interview today on December 24th.  They’ve asked me to come on January 11th.

I live in Washington DC, attend one of the consortium schools, and make around $10-14,000 a year as a graduate assistant after taxes. I also have significant student loans, and have spent some money to travel to see my family.

I do not have a car, and pay around $750 in rent in the two bedroom apartment I share with my hypothetical roommate. Since this is the first notice I’ve received for an MLA interview, I’ll go ahead and make reservations and keep my fingers crossed that I’ll get a few more. I don’t have any hypothetical friends in Chicago, at least well enough to call and ask for a free hypothetical place to stay. The good news is that I live in a major city with two major airports, and I’m flying into another major city that isn’t unreasonably far away. Therefore, I’m in a good position overall, and my hypothetical budget is going to be on the cheaper end.

First I need to join MLA and pay for the conference.



Not bad; I’m thankful I can pay the graduate rate. Next I need to get a flight.


Much as I’d like to take a non-stop flight, I don’t want to be rolling into Chicago around 10 pm. Also, getting to Dulles (IAD) is expensive and difficult because it’s not metro-accessible. So, I’m going to Reagan at 1:30. Need to pick a return flight and here’s the damage:


Now I need a hotel room. If I want to stay at one of the conference hotels, here’s what I’m looking at:



And here’s what happens when I do Expedia for hotels on the Magnificent Mile:


I can keep looking around, but I’m just going to assume that I can get a room for around 91 dollars a night after taxes. I’d love to stay at the hotel where the conference meets, but every cent matters, and likely one of these cheaper hotels will allow me free internet and perhaps a free continental breakfast. So while the conference rate will be cheaper than the prices listed above for the Sheraton and the Marriott, I’m going to choose to stay in one of the two star hotels that are (hopefully) conveniently located and are (certainly) cheaper.

To get to my hotel from the airport, I’ll need to take a shuttle, which I assume will be cheaper than a cab.


I’ll give myself a budget of fifty dollars total for meals, and I’ll need about six dollars to travel to and from the airport on the Metro. Here’s how much I will (optimistically) be spending for the trip:



I’ve presented this without qualification or commentary, but I do hope this puts things into something of a financial perspective for both potential job-seekers and those who are looking to hire them. Also, we should be aware that some students are given a stipend for travel expenses related to job interviews, but often that money is limited.

I present this as something of an ideal situation for the moment: that is, I’ve found out about two weeks ahead of time, and I’m flying from a major city to another major city close-by.  And yet, I realize this budget may be hopelessly naive – but keep in mind the graduate students who are just finding out about MLA interviews today. Or next week.

I welcome feedback from all participants in this process – those who are attending MLA as candidates and potential employers, and for alternate possibilities.

This Song is Actually About Video Games

Full disclosure: for the last few months, I’ve been obsessed with Lana Del Rey’s song “Video Games.” I probably haven’t disclosed this because it’s a weird thing for a thirty-six year old man to listen to while jogging. And while “Video Games” fits my jogging playlist standards for inclusion (matches my breathing rhythms, rises to a crescendo after moments of repetition), I think my weird preoccupation with the song is based on a misinterpretation.

Because I’ve been meaning to write about the way song is the most damning critique of pre-and-post millennial hipster masculinity that I’ve heard at least since people started using the word “hipster” to describe people who know the names of all the members of Animal Collective. I based this reading primarily on the first verse:

I’m in his favorite sun dress
Watchin’ me get undressed
Take that body downtown
I say youre the bestest
Lean in for a big kiss
Put his favorite perfume on
Go play your video game

Now, perhaps it’s because I’d never actually looked at the lyrics before, and because I was usually jogging across a busy street when listening to it, but I assumed the lyrics were describing something different than those lyrics suggest: Lana is dressed for romance, while her dude just wants to play video games – a conflict that the rest of the song (I thought) plays out. Combined with Lana’s persona – a torch singer who would have been iconoclastic in the 1970s (her entire image construction seems impossible without the pre-existence of Joan from Mad Men), I assumed the song was laying into all the dudes drinking PBR and sitting on a bean bag chair and playing A Boy and his Blob as Lana Del Rey is wearing their favorite sundress. Lana is so hopelessly in love that she’ll reinvent herself again (I heard that you like the bad girls, honey / Is that true?), while some Dmitri Martin look-alike wanders around virtually to find out if there’s a way to get out of the dungeon without using the wizard key. Women continue to be awesome, while men have been increasingly ineffectual and detached. I thought that sentiment, savage yet exact, made the song damningly relevant.

But that doesn’t seem to be what’s going on here. It seems like Lana actually wants to play video games with her amour.  That’s her idea of a romantic evening, and it’s why she puts on a sundress. Or it’s a euphemism for sex, which is stupid. The consistent refrain doesn’t make sense in any other context, unless it’s ironic, and there’s nothing about the way Lana sings the song to suggest that. For instance:

He holds me in his big arms
Drunk and I am seein’ stars
This is all I think of
Watchin’ all our friends fall
In and out of Old Paul’s[?]
This is my idea of fun
Playin’ video games

In other words, Lana and her hunk snuggle up together and play ICE CLIMBER. That’s the romantic bliss the song is describing.

This blogger seems to affirm my reading, even though it has a different, empowering interpretation. She thinks it’s about a woman participating in a gendered setting, while I now assume it’s just a way of making the torch song culturally relevant. She says, “Despite all her lyrics about sundresses, perfume, and big kisses, ‘Video Games’ is mostly about playing video games” when I thought it was about sundresses, perfume, and big kisses and  heavily flannelled hippie-johnnies who would rather play video games.

When Lana Del Rey was widely mocked for her performance on Saturday Night Live, I assumed it was because this degree of anti-charisma combined with celebrity ambition was never going to work in this cultural moment. She wasn’t the kind of icon anyone was asking for, and that therefore she (and whoever else talked Lorne Michaels into putting her on) had made a huge miscalculation. But now I’m just baffled. Lana continues to be reasonably popular while remaining mostly out of the Top 10 List on Youtube. There’s room for her, in other words, but not at the top. But perhaps confusion – about what she’s trying to be and what her songs mean – is the most appropriate way to approach her. And I guess that’s why she remains on my jogging playlist.

(The video, by the way, explains nothing. Except that, like Lana Del Rey, it exists uncomfortably in the present and the past).

THE 80’s Hair Metal Horror Classic That Wasn’t

Trick or Treat is a movie made in 1986 about a Satanic hair rocker who comes to life through an album played backwards and then uses his guitar to kill high school students. When I was ten, this movie was on pay-per-view, and no-way, no-how were my parents going to let me rent it. But the pay-per-view channel showed previews all day long, and I watched this one over and over again:

I know. Why haven’t you heard of this movie? It’s Carrie meets Ratt’s Invasion of Privacy. Revenge of the Nerds with Vince Neil instead of Ogre. Ultra-timely, it plays on those Tipper Gore-led witch hunts against the likes of Rob Halford and Dee Snider. At one point, Satan incarnate complains under oath that you can’t legislate morality. It’s every parent’s nightmare about the effects of rock music on disaffected teenagers. Why wasn’t Trick or Treat exhibit F that rock n’roll was the Devil’s music for people who actually though KISS stood for “Knights In Service of Satan.” Why, you’re asking, aren’t people watching this at midnight tonight and throwing crap at the screen when demon-rocker Sammi Curr kills the gay guy from Melrose Place? Trick or Treat should be the ultimate time capsule for everything that was stupid and horrible and wonderful about hair metal, packed into the kind of exploitation mid-80s horror movie that we’ve canonized through the hard work of obsessive cults.

But it’s not.

And the reason, sadly is that Sammi Curr – who is supposed to be everything cool and dark about the music – is played by some dude named Tony Fields. According to its Wikipedia page, Blackie Lawless of W.A.S.P. was originally set to play Sammi, and that would have made the movie awesome

Blackie would have damn-near perfect; he was just the charismatic anti-icon the movie needed. Instead, Tony Fields was “one of the stars of the chorus line,” and he barely registers. Meanwhile Gene Simmons and Ozzy Osbourne have cameos, and they appear hilariously on the DVD cover even though they don’t even last a combined five minutes in the movie. Ozzy plays a televangelist.

The screenwriters had the right idea. A bullied weiner named Eddie sits in his room and writes embarrassingly personal letters to this scuzzy guitar god. Then Sammi, “Rock’s chosen warrior,” dies in a hotel fire and Eddie gets a hold of the “last record,” which does some weird stuff to his stereo when he plays it. This posthumous effort turns out to be even more affecting than Sammi’s last hits: “F*ck with Fire, Burning Metal, and Torture’s Too Kind.” Of course, playing it backwards only exacerbates things. Playing Eddie, Marc Price looks like a less-intelligent  version of Jesse Eisenberg (which is probably not a phrase  he wants in his obituary).

Sadly, Price’s claim to fame is still as Skippy from Family Ties, the kind of doofus so wussy even other nerds beat him up and he has to be rescued by Tina Yothers. Trick or Treat, recognizing that they have the world-class weiner on their hands, has him get rescued by a girl here too. So Eddie goes home to listen to Sammi Curr’s cacophonous screeching, and despite all his rage, he’s still just a rat in a cage. Until the devil’s music makes him more confident and willing to take on the metrosexual bullies who torment him for some reason (a similar transformation happened to me in high school when I listened to Nelson’s After the Rain).

All hell breaks loose. Kind of. While the film creepily has Sammi’s ghost haunt a Walkman (!) to have his way with the bully’s girlfriend, the rest of the movie is just not absurd enough to register. Which is too bad, because it’s a killer setup, and it should have been at least as memorable as Child’s Play. Trick or Treat is only half as fun as it should be.

Does music really speak to us? In its own trashy way, Trick or Treat argues that it does. Eddie isn’t Charles Manson thinking “Piggies” is about a race war; these songs are truly haunted, invested with the fiendish spirit that Tipper Gore and the Parents Music Resource Center assured us were present in Sheena Easton lyrics. The movie is at its best when it suggests those fevered anxieties might be true.

Here’s a loving mock-obituary to Sammi.  And here, apparently, is the whole movie on Youtube.