Friday, October 21, 2016

HubrisWeen 2016, Day 16: Pride & Prejudice & Zombies (2016)

Before we begin, I feel it is necessary to acknowledge one thing: "mashups" have been a thing for a lot longer than many of us would like to believe. After all, artists and fans have been taking popular characters and stories and awkwardly placing them together since we've had stories. Sometimes to insert a character into a totally different setting, sometimes to mock something, and sometimes to add titillation.

After all, aren't most porn parodies essentially Pride & Prejudice & Penises?

However, for some reason, mashups seem like a fairly recent and annoying trend probably because of one specific novel that started a trend that was briefly inescapable. In 2009, Seth Grahame-Smith published a mashup novel, Pride & Prejudice & Zombies. The novel was almost exactly what it says on the tin: Grahame-Smith had taken almost the entire text of Jane Austen's novel and then slightly altered it to insert zombies, martial arts, and swordplay.

When it first came out, I thought the blasted thing was brilliant. I bought it right away, enjoying the cover art, delighting in the illustrations within its pages--and then I had to go and ruin it by reading it. It is true that Jane Austen is a far better author than she is often given credit for, since she was a woman and her novels involve subjects more relevant to women than the average man. However, it says quite a lot that the best parts of the book were overwhelmingly Austen's original text.

For one thing, Grahame-Smith managed to use a phrase along the lines of "schooled in the Oriental Arts" about 15 times, with the exact same wording unvaried in each repetition. For another, the idea simply wasn't as clever as it initially seemed. This was a book that was meant to sit on a shelf as decoration.

And if you ask me, the book had already been bested in the Jane Austen mashup department five years earlier by Bride & Prejudice.

Unfortunately, the book ushered in a trend of literary and horror mashups that were distinguishable mainly by the fact that their titles were clearly the best part, such as Sense & Sensibility & Sea Monsters and Android Karenina. I only read a few chapters of the former before I realized I no longer had any interest in the joke--and that was before the utterly inexplicable version of War of the Worlds with zombies was announced. What even is the point in that?

Mercifully, the trend petered itself out relatively quickly, sparing us from any of the announced film versions after Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Although I confess myself a bit sad that the Elton John-produced film Pride & Predator did not come to fruition.

Yet, in a fittingly zombie-like manner, it was confirmed in 2014 that the film adaptation of the mashup that started it all was not so dead after all. It was mystifying that anyone would think the demand was still there at that far remove, and yet it would be almost two more years before the actual film would lurch into cinemas, searching hungrily for an audience it was too slow to catch. Unsurprisingly, it bombed pretty hard.

However, box office failures aren't always because a film isn't good. Like most of us, I have found myself a champion of many a box office failure in my life--and, at any rate, curiosity got the better of me.

Some things should stay dead, unfortunately. And as soon as I saw the Screen Gems logo at the start of this film, I knew it was one such monstrosity.

Credit where credit is due, the film opens with the novel's amusing yet obvious rephrasing of Austen's famous opening, "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains," but apparently realized that that line made almost no sense in the actual novel. After all, the zombies there were of the Romero variety and not like the Return of the Living Dead's brain-munching, intelligent zombies. So, the movie changes them to be the latter so that the line is not merely an easy joke.

We learn this when we see Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy (Sam Riley) arrive at an aristocratic estate as the host family and their guests are playing at cards. Did I mention that Mr. Darcy will spend almost the entire film wearing a black pleather duster? Because my girlfriend would like me to mention it, as she found it incredibly vexing.

Any second he'll be putting on a trilby and telling you to take the Red Pill.
After a weirdly homoerotic bit where Darcy is first examined by a creepy older priest to make sure h has not been bitten, the young lad makes his way into the parlor for his business. Darcy believes that one of the nobles on the estate may have been bitten by a zombie, and that the transformation can take a while to show itself--and that the transformation quickens after a zombie feeds on brains. Darcy has a trick for finding zombies, however--a small jar of carrion flies that he releases. They settle on one man and Darcy beheads him before he can attack anyone else.

However, Darcy plainly ignores the obvious signs that the hostess is lying about anyone having been in close enough contact with the man to also be bitten, and declares his business concluded and departs. So he's not around when the hostess's daughter finds that the dead man's niece has begun feeding on the servants...

Would you believe this shot involves a zombie snot bubble popping? I wish I was joking.
The opening credits are admittedly delightful as they use a series of drawn cut-outs illuminated by candlelight (though all obviously digital) and narration by Mr Bennet (Charles Dance!) to tell the story of how, in the 18th Century, settlers from the Colonies brought back a strange plague to England. The French were initially blamed, but some said the Four Horsemen had brought the scourge and even claimed to have seen them in the country. The zombie plague had devastated England by the time London was walled off and a canal was created to serve as a huge moat around the countryside where many rich families live, with "The In-Between" being apparently the rest of England. (Yes, I realize that makes no sense, but you should direct your ire at the filmmakers) Several successful zombie incursions led to the bridges on the canal being reduced to one, and rich families sending their children to China and Japan to learn the Eastern methods of combat.

Honestly, you probably know the damn story of Pride & Prejudice from here. I could leave it as, "It's that, but there's zombies and everything is stupid," but that doesn't make for very good reading. So I won't do that. But I could.

No, instead, I'm going to do this right--and Cliff Notes this bastard.

Netherfield Park has a new tenant by the name of Charles Bingley (Douglas Booth) and Mrs. Bennet (Sally Phillips) has it in her mind to marry one of her five daughters to him, whether Mr. Bennet likes it or not. Her daughters are a varied bunch, with lovely and proper Jane (Bella Heathcote); proud and accomplished fighter Elizabeth (Lily James); studious Mary (Millie Brady); and the rambunctious and flirty Kitty (Suki Waterhouse) and Lydia (Ellie Bamber).

Mrs. Bennet is in luck, because Bingley and his family are throwing a ball at Netherfield. And we get a montage of the Bennet daughters getting dressed up, complete with loving shots of them slipping daggers into garter holsters.

Look, we all know this scene was someone's very specific fetish.
At the ball the Bennet family meets Bingley and his sister Caroline (Emma Greenwell). They also meet his close friend, Mr. Darcy. Bingley and Jane are smitten with each other instantly, but Darcy is rude and aloof. When Bingley tries to draw Darcy's attention to Elizabeth, Darcy says that she is tolerable but not attractive enough to tempt him--and Elizabeth overhears this. However, unlike every version of this story ever, Lizzy does not react with a mix of amusement, anger, and annoyance. Oh no, this version of Lizzy Bennet runs outside, crying her eyes out because a boy said a mean thing about her.

I'm not saying that strong female characters can't cry, mind you. Hell, even Lizzy cries in the proper context. However, having her react this way to Darcy being an ass is dead wrong and I never realized how much that could bother me.

At any rate, this serves to put Lizzy outside the estate when the hostess from the opening shows up, clearly a zombie. However, the hostess tries to tell Lizzy something--before Darcy appears and blows the zombie's head off. Lizzy is angry that Darcy intervened since she believes that the zombie was not a threat and she wanted to hear what she had to say. Never mind all that, however, because now zombies are descending upon the party.

Good thing the Bennet girls were trained in the ways of the Shaolin in China--even though we'll later learn Japan is usually the preferred country.

See, this is why people dressed in Victorian garb aren't allowed into the Victorian Gardens.
Ugh, this sequence is seriously terrible, though. The fight choreography is fine, but the sisters seem to kill the zombies by just...stabbing them. Despite it having been clearly shown by this point that removing or attacking the head is the only sure way to kill a zombie, most of this sequence has the zombies being vanquished with no more difficulty than a living foe would be. I realize that the PG-13 rating is somewhat limiting, but come on.

At any rate, Darcy blames himself for the siege--as he should--though Bingley assures him it's not his fault. Darcy is also already smitten with Lizzy at this point, and Lizzy's sisters tease her about Darcy while they beat each other up to practice their martial arts. Lizzy swears to never get married because her husband would surely expect her to give up her sword.

We then jump rather suddenly to the part of the story where Mrs. Bennet sends Jane by herself on a horse to visit Netherfield ahead of a rainstorm so she will stranded there and forced to get to know Mr. Bingley. Except in this version of the story she is literally sending her daughter into mortal peril far worse than getting sick from the rain.

Sure enough, Jane is thrown from her horse and set upon by a zombie. Her flintlock backfires, wounding her hand, and she is forced to kill the zombie with physical blows. The rain has begun to fall and Jane is already weakened from the bullet wound when a zombie woman and her zombie baby advance upon her...

Darcy has already decided that Jane has been infected when Lizzy arrives. She insists that her sister is merely suffering from her non-zombie wound and catching cold, and artfully kills all of Darcy's carrion flies. The physician agrees with Lizzy, but naturally Lizzy must now stay until her sister is well. While most of the guests play cards, Lizzy advises she prefers to read. Caroline mocks Lizzy by speaking to her in Japanese, while Lizzy responds to Darcy condescendingly translating the French title of "The Art of War" to her, by telling him in Chinese that he's never read the book if he's never read it in the original dialect.

Lizzy is very, very obviously dubbed here. Sadly, I don't think it was a joke.

Eventually, Jane recovers after bonding with Bingley and returns home, where the Bennets are forced to play host to the male relative of Mr. Bennet who will inherit the estate upon his death, the odious Parson Collins (Matt Smith!). Now, I have watched less than five episodes of Doctor Who in my entire life and none of them involved Matt Smith, but in even good versions of this story the Collins character tends to be the best part. Thankfully, that proves true even in this dreck, for Matt Smith almost makes this whole sorry affair watchable every time he's on screen.

Dalek. Uh, Cyber...TARDIS? River...Phoenix? Look, I don't know any Doctor Who references!
As per usual, Collins has arrived not only to inspect the estate and brag about his patronage of the grand warrior noblewoman, Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Lena Headey!), but to wed one of the Bennet daughters. He tries to select Jane, only for Mrs. Bennet to advise him that Jane is basically spoken for but Lizzy is available.

Collins attempts to ingratiate himself to Lizzy, following on her heels as she, Jane, and Lydia go into town on foot. On the way they encounter a trap laid by a zombie in an overturned carriage, which shocks Collins since he did not think zombies capable of such a thing. Lizzy and Lydia's muskets make short work of the zombie, however, so it's a moot point. In town, the group meets one George Wickham (Jack Huston), a redcoat in the English army fighting the good fight against the hordes. Lizzy finds him charming, and her interest in him increases when Bingley and Darcy meet the group...and she sees Darcy recoil at Wickham's presence and quickly ride on.

At another ball at Netherfield--which requires the Bennet carriage to pass a field of zombie orphans, which they just ignore--Collins proceeds to make an ass of himself while trying to dance with Lizzy. Darcy spares her from that for a moment, dancing with her until Wickham cuts in. After dancing a while and Wickham telling Lizzy how Darcy cheated him of his livelihood after the death of Darcy's father, Lizzy goes to sit with her mother. Her mother then loudly brags about her plans to marry all her daughters off to rich husbands--which Darcy overhears. Of course, when Lizzy goes to find her father, she runs into Mr. Bingley--and then a zombie attacks one of Bingley's servants. Coming to the servant's aid, Bingley manages to get himself knocked out as the zombie orphans swarm the kitchen.

Darcy comes to Lizzy's aid after one of the zombies tries to tell her something vague again. After Darcy waylays the zombies, he interprets Bingley's injuries as a bite and almost kills him before Lizzy intervenes. She chides Darcy that he may be a great warrior, but he's an awful friend.

Somehow, it comes as a shock that the Bingleys have decided to pack up and return to London after the second time zombies invaded a ball they'd thrown. Though the shock is mostly as a result of the fact that the letter the Bennets receive from the Bingleys implies that Mr. Bingley may be about to be betrothed to Darcy's younger sister instead.

So Lizzy is in an exceptionally poor mood when Collins decides to propose and she refuses him--and then the film manages to hilariously botch the scene where her mother says she will not speak to her again if she does not marry Collins, and her father says he will not speak to her again if she does. Not only is it rushed, but Lizzy oddly decides to run off into the woods by herself in a fit of despair that I do not have any idea what the source is supposed to be.

She finds herself wandering into a graveyard, where she encounters the strange sight of four men dressed all in black with tall top-hats. She can't see their faces, and then she is startled by Wickham, who didn't see the men but writes them off as pallbearers anyway/ He has something to show Lizzy, he claims, and takes her to The In-Between, to an old church called St. Lazarus. Outside the decrepit church are pens full of pigs, but inside a service is taking place. Lizzy is annoyed by the giggling of two girls in the pew ahead of her, but when she shushes them they whirl on her--

Oh God, spare me another Pokemon Go thinkpiece.
Yep, it's a church of zombies. Wickham was well aware of this, however, having discovered them years ago. The zombies of St. Lazarus feed their cravings on pig's brains as a form of communion, and this keeps them from giving in to their zombie instincts. Wickham believes this is the key to winning the war against the undead--supporting the more sentient of the zombies and coexisting with them. Wickham argues that the Crown is all but broke from keeping this fight up and there is no way to beat the zombies that multiply faster than the living, but he needs someone in power to actually listen to him.

Well, luckily Lizzy's friend, Charlotte Lucas (Aisling Loftus), whom we have barely seen at all, has decided to marry Collins since at 25 she won't get many better prospects. Collins intends to take Charlotte to get Lady Catherine's blessing and he invites Lizzy along. Lizzy sees this as a perfect opportunity to bring Wickham along to pitch his plan for dealing with the zombie scourge.

Unfortunately, Lady Catherine's nephew is also in attendance--one Mr. Darcy. When Wickham tries to sell the idea to the group, describing them as "zombie aristocrats", it doesn't go well. Darcy and Lady Catherine both see it as a combination of nonsense and a money-making scheme. Collins brings up the idea of the Anti-Christ, which Wickham incorporates as a last-ditch effort--surely if they appeal to the zombies now, before they find their Anti-Christ, they can bring them under control. It still fails.

I didn't mention that Lena Headey was the other best part of this movie, because duh.
Lizzy tries to comfort Wickham later, but he turns cruel. He spits that the aristocrats will all be killed by the threat that they ignore, which offends Lizzy even before he tries to convince her to elope with him. When she refuses, he tells her that Darcy deliberately sabotaged Jane's engagement to Bingley. Lizzy understandably wants to know how the fuck Wickham knows that, but he just says that "men talk," before he disappears into the night.

At the house of Collins and Charlotte, I think, Darcy finds Lizzy and makes his arrogant proposal to her. Of course, she also refuses him for ruining Jane's happiness and then she tries to kill him as he attempts to explain himself. Rather unnecessarily, they both slash each other's clothes at one point in a "sexy" manner. Eventually, Darcy takes his leave after being stabbed.

Later, Darcy sends a letter apologizing for misjudging Jane's affections. He also explains that he suspects Wickham engineered his father's zombie infection, forcing Darcy to kill his father, and then Wickham squandered the money he was provided. He also tried to elope with Darcy's sister, but Darcy managed to stop that just in time. Lucky that Lizzy got this note when she did, because Lydia has just run off with Wickham, eloping to St. Lazarus.

Lizzy is gearing up to go find Wickham when Lady Catherine arrives with her hulking manservant, Wilhelm. She is there to demand that Lizzy refuse Darcy's proposal of marriage, and she will fight her to the death to ensure that. Lizzy refuses to fight Lady Catherine, the honor of England, so Lady Catherine has her fight Wilhelm instead. After a few close calls, Lizzy manages to knock bricks down onto Wilhelm's head.

Any hope this movie had of winning me over was lost when Wilhelm did not let out the Wilhelm Scream as he died.

Bizarrely, Lady Catherine then offers to help the Bennets to retrieve Lydia by offering her carriage. Of course, it comes at the worst time because London has somehow been overrun by zombies and is on fire. At the front, Bingley manages to almost blow himself up when he throws a bomb at a zombie and it grabs his fey scarf. Jane appears and rescues him, however. And then Lizzy rescues Darcy from a zombie horde.

When she tells him about Wickham and St. Lazarus, Darcy bizarrely decides to lie and say it was razed and her sister couldn't have survived. However, Darcy actually has made a plan with Bingley--at 5AM the only bridge between London and the...part that isn't London or The In-Between will be dynamited. Darcy synchs his watch with Bingley and sets off over the bridge to St. Lazarus. Of course, Lizzy isn't a moron and when she sees Bingley looking the wrong way from the battle she realizes something is up and Bingley gives up the jig.

Darcy has headed to St. Lazarus with a bloody sack, and out front he sees four men in black wearing top hats and masks. He sneaks in to the basement and finds Lydia chained up in a cage--and also what is clearly a battle map for the attack on London on the cage wall.

Yep, Wickham is the zombies' leader now. Naturally this is also a trap, as Wickham appears and trains a pistol on Darcy. However, Darcy fools Wickham into wasting his shot just as the zombies in the church above go wild. See, that sack was full of the brains of dead soldiers because Darcy knew the reformed zombies would not be able to resist and would turn savage. Wickham, outside the cage, is swarmed, and Darcy's horse turned out to be conveniently chained to the one window they need to escape and has pulled the bars free so Darcy and Lydia can escape.

Unfortunately, Darcy has also made everything that much worse because he's created a much larger zombie horde--and erased the wills of the sentient zombies, but the movie won't bother to even acknowledge that moral quandary. He therefore sends Lydia ahead on his horse to stay and hold off the zombies. Except it's not the zombies who confront him now, but Wickham, who no worse the wear after all. During the sword fight where the two men are plainly using rubber swords, Darcy manages to impale his foe through the heart...but it doesn't take.

Wickham reveals the zombie bite on his chest. He's been a zombie for years, you see, and he's become their Anti-Christ and also raised the Four Horseman. And now, he's going to kill Darcy--only Lizzy shows up at that moment on her horse, having passed Lydia and surmised that Darcy needed saving. She chops Wickham's sword arm off and sweeps Darcy up on her horse. It's a ticking clock as they ride through the zombie horde that seems oddly uninterested in attacking them. And then they hit the bridge and I begin to curse this movie with my every breath as their horse races ahead of the exploding bridge.

Is that the explosion sound effects or the blood vessels in my brain popping all at once?
It's almost disappointing that there's no dramatic leap over a gap in the bridge. Rather, Lizzy comes to on the ruined bridge with no sign of the horse, and finds an unconscious Darcy that seems dead. She cradles him in her arms and confesses her love to him as the camera pulls away from above, spinning as it goes.

Some time later, at Lady Catherine's, the Bennet girls clean their guns and then Bingley appears and proposes to Jane. Then Darcy appears, Lady Catherine chiding him for being unconscious so long they feared him dead or undead. He then tells Lizzy in private that he heard her confess her love to him on the bridge and--I suddenly realize there is another trope that I loathe, and it's that.

Anyway, the expected double wedding takes place--where Darcy is still wearing the pleather duster! Collins is officiating and a slip of the tongue implies he wants to kiss Darcy. Ho ho, comedy! At any rate the movie mercifully ends now as they happily walk away from the ceremony...

...oh, wait, except it's not because the Marvel movies exist and everything needs a post credits sequel tease. After the cast credits end, we are "treated" to the scene continuing, only for our romantic heroes to look upon the horizon with horror as a horde of zombies charges at them. And at the head of the horde are the Four Horsemen and Wickham, who now has some kind of weapon in place of his severed hand. The End, finally.

"Braaaaiii-- Oh Shit, I'm in this movie?! I think I'll just stay under the ground, thanks."
Some movies deserve to fail.

Now, don't get me wrong. I absolutely feel for the people on the lower end of the studio spectrum who suffer when a movie like this bombs. However, I can't feel bad for the studio executives who still pushed through this movie roughly seven years after anyone could still be expected to give a shit. And I don't feel bad for the horde of screenwriters, the director, or my new nemesis--the cinematographer.

Early in the movie we are introduced to "zombie vision," which is the expected fucked up POV cam. In this case it's Vaseline-tinged and slightly unfocused. Except, for no rhyme or reason, other scenes have Vaseline-smeared lenses when nothing zombie-related is happening! It's completely inconsistent and distracting.

The acting is nothing to write home about, either, with the obvious exceptions of Matt Smith and Lena Headey, with Charles Dance being an old pro as well yet oddly muted as the eccentric Mr. Bennet. Our leads are pretty unremarkable, with Lily James being tough to distinguish from any of her sisters and Sam Riley being memorable largely because he has a croaky voice that reminds me of John Hurt. Don't get me wrong, I'm sure they're fine actors in other movies and were poorly served by the film, but even so.

What truly astounds me is that the book was not very good at all, and this film found a way to make it far worse. Somewhere along the line the story was clearly torn apart and stitched back together all wrong, with even less of the original Austen work utilized and a whole new story line that largely ditches the book's, but fails to replace it with something good.

I mean, this is a zombie movie where the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are actual characters and that comes to absolutely nothing. And somehow making Wickham a zombie double agent manages to be the boring choice.

And of course, the PG-13 rating means that, even though that rating has become distressingly lax on graphic violence in recent years, the zombies can't be as gory as they need to be. The fights aren't anything special, either, since despite all the talk of Shaolin training nobody took the obvious route of hiring a Hong Kong fight choreographer. In fact, midway through I bemoaned that this film would have been so much better as a low-budget Hong Kong action-horror-comedy. It might still have been a bad movie, but it would have had the energy and humor that most of this film sorely lacked.

In the end this film as lifeless and malformed as the zombies that inhabit it, and in possession of even fewer brains.

You probably thought I was kidding earlier when I recommended Bride & Prejudice instead. I wasn't.

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