I got duped into watching a little indie horror film called Grabbers, last night. It’s on Netflix and it has a pretty high rating of 3.5 stars. The premise– townspeople of a seaside village must keep their blood alcohol content up to avoid being eaten by alien sea monsters– seemed worth watching, but the Tremors-like production lacked anything significantly appealing. I don’t want to turn this into a review, But this production is very interesting to me as a failure on many levels, but still a success, apparently, on Netflix. It is even has 72%on Rotten Tomatoes!
It’s an indie film, which means nothing to me. People talk about liking indie films as though they are their own genre and they are not. I love that independent film has grown and the artistic freedom and access that it affords, but in general, I don’t like indie productions any more than I like Hollywood ones. There are just as many flaws in both systems. I think that generally, the point of a Hollywood studio production is to make money. They can accomplish this by giving wide audiences what they want, or at least by profiting on their anticipation with a huge opening weekend. One of the biggest complaints about this system is that it rarely delivers anything particularly extraordinary. One of the biggest drawbacks is that they track ticket sales as a formula for success rather than critical reception. The difference is that ticket sales show how many people want to see a movie about such and such, and reception shows how close the production came to audience expectations. So, if a highly anticipated blockbuster has a huge opening weekend, Monday morning, execs start discussing sequels even though it generally takes about six months for public opinion to catch up and settle the score. Studios leverage the audiences willingness to watch a property they want to see, even if it is not handled appropriately, so the cycle if broken, is only done so by accident, being either exceptionally good or disastrously disappointing.
Independent films generally aim to make movies. There are some driven storytellers out there who are very skilled and do their best work, free of the shackles of the studio system, but some directors find the resources available through studio backing are indispensable. In the world of independent film there is a willingness to look the other way for the sake of supporting art, or perhaps damning the Hollywood machine; But there lie several motivations behind independent film production. We like to pretend it is for the sake of art, but mostly indie film makers only want to make movies. Content doesn’t even come secondarily. This system is ironically even more dependent on revenue because the funding is sought after and less available than funding dumped into a promising franchise, or star vehicle from one of the big guys. It’s also worth noting that independent films that do get funded by successful producers are somehow seen as inferior, or not true indie film despite being some of the best independent work out there. For the other folks out there, the focus on just making movies is as tragic as the course of just making money, because they are happy just to be working and either don’t know how to achieve excellence, don’t want to, or are simply not qualified to.
No matter where you are making movies, or who you are making movies for, it should always be about telling a good story. You can blame budget for substandard special effects, but hiring good writers, directors and actors are not contingent on signing a higher pay check. This is why the idea of independent film is so appealing. Potentially, much more can be accomplished provided that the artists are serious about creating something substantial and that their choice of medium is conducive to the talents they are afforded (photography and music come to mind as frequently neglected skills in the world of independent film). This is where just making a movie gets in the way of possibly making a great movie and opting for convenience is just as bad as any politics in the traditional studio system.
Unfortunately, there is a double standard where indie films are concerned. They are allowed to be awful and credited with being original, or somehow more legitimate than a mainstream production. This is the only way that I can reconcile the positive ratings given by audiences to a movie like Grabbers on two separate platforms. The movie bumbles between genres and never realizes the potential of the premise, lacking heavily in the dialogue department and sadly formulaic without any seasoning or spice. The blandness is dampened further by utterly uninteresting visual style and terribly monotonous music. In fact, the creature effects were the movie’s only real strong point.
Such a promising concept is transformed into a boring and sloppy attempt at crossing genres without truly nailing any of them. This is another problem that indie film struggles with. It’s also why anytime I hear the word “dramedy” I turn and run the other way. The reason is simple. Untested unskilled filmmakers ought to start with more focus, learning how to master one genre before attempting to fuse two together. A sci-fi/horror is plenty to work with for a novice. A sci-fi/horror/comedy is unthinkable unless you have the craft down and are able to maneuver between both styles with pinpoint precision. Grabbers is a muddled mess, failing to be either scary or funny, and with no heart beating underneath the bare bones formula it pales in comparison to the one liners anyone would use to win you over. The term “dramedy” is the most common example of indie film failing to tap its soul. To attempt it is useless. You cannot have a great comedy without good drama at it’s core. And all the best drama feeds off of the fuel of comic relief. A dramedy attempts to give both genres equal billing where one, by necessity, must outweigh the other in order to find success. The result is almost always two poorly executed genres and an unsatisfying movie.
I don’t know why dramedy is so popular among indie fare. I chalk it up to inexperience and trying to do too much too soon, or maybe the writer feels that life is neither all that funny or all that serious and wants to capture that view. Either way, it makes for a stunning waste of time.