'The Skulls': A 10 Year Old Movie That's Already Baffling
Every once in a while, we here at Cracked like to hand over the site to a writer or animator whose work we really enjoy. It's our little way of saying "We forgot to write something today." This week, we have an update from Patrick Cassels's movie review site, 10-Year-Old Movies. The site gives a look at random films on the occasion of their 10th Anniversary, giving them way more consideration than they probably need a decade later.
YEAR 2000 TRADEMARKS:
-Concerns elderly rich perverts in robes (see: Eyes Wide Shut, The Ninth Gate)
-Disc sold as "Collector's Edition"
-Stars of two WB dramas (Popular and Dawson's Creek)
-Spawned numerous straight-to-DVD sequels (see: Bring it On, Wild Things, American Pie)
The Skulls, released in March 2000, is the second installment of Joshua Jackson's trilogy of college-set thrillers based on the wickedness of Generation Y, following 1998's Cruel Intentions and preceding Gossip (released a month later). It's a thriller based on the real life Yale secret society Skull and Bones, a kind of mysterious rich kids' club whose former members include politicians, billionaires and according to The Good Shepard an anti-Semitic Robert De Niro. Joshua Jackson plays Luke McNamara, a lowbrow townie enrolled at an unnamed Ivy League school who gains acceptance to the "The Skulls," an elite club whose members apparently spend their time smoking cigars, attending vague, swank parties in big oak rooms and engaging in other forms of WASP porn.
Also gay stuff.
But The Skulls is composed exclusively of rich white guys and run by politicians, so inevitably McNamara soon discovers the organization is a corrupt, murderous cabal and sets out to free himself from the society's clutches with the help of his hot girlfriend (Popular's Leslie Bibb) and a silver-haired Southern sentator with a velvet voice played by William Petersen; easily the best part of The Skulls. He's so good, in fact, that he somehow makes the impossibly corny final line in the movie my absolute favorite, delivered so overearnestly it would make his perpetually sunglassed CSI counterpart David Caruso blush:
What's it Like 10 years Later?
IT'S AMERICAN PIE MEETS THE FIRM
I was 14 when 1999's American Pie arrived in theaters. God knows how I got past the ushers upholding the movies' hard R-rating (there was an entire library of cons we minors used to get into the Screams and Wild Things and South Park that every junior high schooler needed to see to remain socially relevant), but I vividly remember slipping into a Newburgh Hoyts and watching wide-eyed and slack-jawed by all the sexual escapades that the filmmakers precisely designed to widen the eyes and slacken the jaws of mid-pubescent teens like myself.
Today, the Internet has made this experience of relying on R-rated films for sex and nudity seem quaint. But back in the late 20th Century, household Internet was undergoing its own puberty. America Online provided some neighborhood kids with primitive access to the X-rated offramps of the information superhighway, but for most of us the only sources of female nudity back then were late-night Cinemax and moldy Penthouse editions stashed under porches. So American Pie, with its voyeuristic shots of Shannon Elizabeth's bare chest, arrived like a rare conjugal visit to my hormonal prison.
I'm not recalling these memories because I think anyone has an interest (or isn't completely repelled) by my sexual history. I'm recalling them to highlight the "teen titty movie," that genre of R-rated school-bound antics that had vanished from theaters since its post-Animal House boom in the 1980s. Perhaps as some kind of "fuck you" to the Reagan Era's family values, Revenge of the Nerds, Porky's, The Last American Virgin, Weird Science, Fast Times at Ridgemont High and a dozen other masterpieces picked up where John Belushi's boner left off.
In the early 90s, however, sexually transmitted diseases made movies about horny teens engaging in consequence-free fucking seem a bit irresponsible. America traded in the teen titty flick for puritanical network shows like Beverly Hills 90210, where teenagers, after "losin it'," were rewarded with a teen pregnancy scare instead of a bodacious high-five from Corey Feldman. It would be 10 years before American Pie would start the year 2000 by reviving the genre and ushering in a new generation of teen titty films. Without American Pie (brace yourself here) we might be living in a world without a Dude, Where's My Car?, a Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, an Old School. And we may not have gotten The Skulls, an unlikely installment in the teen titty genre.
What's it Like 10 Years Later?
IT'S REVENGE OF THE NERDS, BUT NOT A COMEDY (BUT STILL WITH A ROBOT SIDEKICK)
The Skulls, at first glance, seems to have little in common with any teen titty movie. It's not a comedy, it's pretty dark, and there isn't so much as a single panty raid or sunglasses raised at the sight of a bikini-clad babe. And yet it's still a college movie. The DNA of Animal House is in its veins. And once you realize this, the movie becomes a hilariously straight interpretation of 80s college comedies. Essentially, The Skulls has the same ethos as Caddyshack's tagline: "It's the snobs vs. the slobs!" But it takes that ethos absurdly seriously. In this case the "snobs" don't just run the country club; they run the country. There's little in The Skulls that isn't in Revenge of the Nerds: cruel preppies, losers versus rich kids, robe-clad fraternal clubs, hidden cameras. Hell, there's even a robot sidekick in The Skulls if you look hard enough. The Skulls most egregious 80s college cliche occurs when McNamara rightfully challenges the society after finding (wait for it) an old bylaw in the university charter.
But where the bylaw in Revenge of the Nerds called for a simple decathlon to dethrone the snobs, The Skulls goes much, much farther, calling for a duel. No, not like a metaphoric duel of wits. A straight-up, Barry Lyndon-style duel. With pistols. The Skulls feels like someone who grew up without ever seeing a movie or watching TV or reading a magazine saw Porky's, didn't realize it was a comedy, and remade it as The Firm. (The result isn't as awesome as you would think.) This is a movie where Happy Gilmore's iconic snob Shooter McGavin isn't just a preppy jerk, he's the sinister minion of a nationwide conspiracy who will snap the neck of an innocent teenager without hesitation.
IT'S A PROPHETIC LOOK AT THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION... STARRING THAT BRO FROM FAST AND THE FURIOUS
I hesitate to call The Skulls a good movie. So I really hesitate to call it a scathing critique of neo-conservatism. That said, the film does deserve a bit of "F1RST!" props for even attempting to say something about George W. Bush eight months before the 2000 election, and three years before the invasion of Iraq. Both the younger and senior Presidents Bush were members of Skull and Bones, and The Skulls attempts to tackle this (when it's not focusing on robotic sidekicks or duels). There's something retroactively perfect about the vapid future Fast and the Furious star Paul Walker playing the dimwitted, privileged son of an overbearing politician and former Skulls member (Craig T. Nelson). Even the following exchange between Walker and Nelson, easily the most cringe-worthy in a movie filled with cringe-worthy exchanges, feels intriguingly important 10 years and two Bush terms later:
OK, maybe that's too bad to draw meaning from. But there are other examples, like this extremely creepy image of Nelson standing in front of an ominous marble etching in the Skulls initiation room. (Warning: You'll never be able to watch another episode of Coach the same way again):
When Jackson asks Petersen, whose Dixie charm, salt-and-pepper hair and sexual secrets scream "Bill Clinton," what the meaning of the etching is, Petersen answers:
Those who wish to become leaders choose the ordeal of war prove themselves worthy of the privilege.
What if we're at peace?
There are always wars to be fought, Luke.
Corny? Sure. But come on, it's a little prophetic, isn't it? This was 2000, when most of us still thought "al Qaeda" was a style in which you could order your pasta. The problem is that The Skulls wants to, you know, have a message, dude, but it also wants to appeal to the Dawson's Creek fans who just bought tickets to see Pacey driving a convertible and taking his shirt off. It's kind of like a Rambo movie, which all want to say something about the cycle of violence behind Vietnam (First Blood), or POWs (First Blood: Part II), or the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (Rambo III), or Burma (John Rambo), but also wants Sylvester Stallone blowing faceless baddies away with and M-60 or explosive arrowheads.
The Skulls has the same problem, only instead of an M-60 it wants to satisfy its teen titty flick ancestors. So it is that just as Paul Walker and Joshua Jackson start digging away at the political subtext of the movie, they're interrupted by an arrival of TOTAL BABES and, if you replace the Creed with Van Halen's "Beautiful Girls," it could be SNL's "Schmit's Gay" commercial: