By now, nearly everyone is familiar with the term mashup – the fusing of seemingly incongruent or disparate elements to create a hybrid of sorts. And while it may be considered an innovation in web design or music, as far as moviemaking is concerned, the concept has been around for a while, even before Jesse James met Dracula or Frankenstein’s Daughter.
Yet despite the fact that studios are always looking for the next new thing, they have historically been reluctant to let go of the tried and true, however tired a trope may be. So, the idea of combining and recombining popular genres that audiences love and can readily identify seems only natural – or unnatural, as many mashups have proven. Simply adding another level or two of generic clichés, or haphazardly sampling well-worn tropes does not guarantee that a film will work, however earnest the attempt.
And more often than not, the experiment can go horribly wrong (does anyone remember Cowboys & Aliens from 2011?) On the other hand, sometimes the tongue-in-cheek or just plain cheeky approach to cross-breeding genres has produced surprising and entertaining results (1972’s blaxploitation-camp-horror film Blacula comes to mind) although relatively few of these mashups have reached a level of transcendence.
With all this in mind, check out the list of movie mashups below, which is itself an eclectic mix of the tried and true and something different. These are films whose creators found the right formula when recombining cinematic DNA, taking the best of both worlds (or even three or four) and making movies that not only embraced but understood the essence of each genre.
15. Outland (1981)
1981’s Outland, written and directed by Peter Hyams (who also wrote and directed the mashup space film-political thriller-turned chase film Capricorn One) is an often-overlooked hybrid gem that got lost in the sci-fi shuffle of the Star Wars/Alien franchises at the time of its release.
Frequently compared to High Noon (the cold-war Western where Gary Cooper’s stoic sheriff Will Kane single-handedly takes on bigotry and thinly disguised McCarthyism), Outland is a genre-crossing product of its political climate and unapologetically a horse opera in outer space (with shuttle craft substituting for horses.)
Sean Connery plays the rugged and resourceful Space Marshal William O’Niel, assigned to Io, one of the moons of Jupiter, who finds himself battling Peter Boyle, bigbusiness, and drug trafficking all alone (well almost, thanks to some nifty non-traditional casting of Frances Sternhagen as a feisty company doctor.) The tension builds steadily as the Marshal waits for corporate-hired assassins to arrive via the shuttle (nods here to Shane as well).
Aided nicely by its realistically gritty and atypical sci-fi production design, Outland offers a unique blending of Western myth with elements of a police thriller, all transplanted to a sweaty mining colony located at the far edge of the final frontier. So what if heads can’t explode in a zero pressure atmosphere? It’s still fun to watch.
14. Last Man Standing (1996)
A world-weary gunslinger-for-hire, played with a die-hard mixture of brashness and ennui by Bruce Willis, drifts (or, more accurately, drives) smack into an ongoing war between Irish and Italian mobsters in the middle of a ghost town, where he plays both sides against the middle for what we think will be his own gain.
If the plot sounds familiar, maybe it’s because you have seen Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 classic jidaigeki, Yojimbo. Or Sergio Leone’s 1964 spaghetti western, A Fistful of Dollars, which was unashamedly a remake of Kurosawa’s film – although the resulting lawsuit postponed the release of Leone’s film for three years.
As a Prohibition-era gangster film set far from its usual urban landscape amid an arid unforgiving desert, Walter Hill’s highly stylized, sepia-toned shoot-em-up-in-suits plays at times like a mirage. Technically the characters and period are closer the original source material — Dashiell Hammett’s 1931 novel Red Harvest and/or 1942’s The Glass Key – a point which critics continue to debate.
But while it may not rise to the level of its foreign predecessors, both iconic classics, Hill’s macho mashup deserves a look, especially when you add hyper-real testosterone-choreographed gunfights, Bruce Dern as an apathetic sheriff, Christopher Walken as a cool-eyed assassin, and Ry Cooder’s mournful score.
13. The Blair Witch Project (1999)
This is the one that started the trend that is still alive and dragging people into dark corners — the low-budget, faux-found-footage, pseudo-documentary horror film. When it premiered at Sundance as a midnight movie in 1999, it was a revelation. With a bare-bones plot, no stars, no gore, and no special effects, the film drew audiences in with its naive nose-dripping naturalistic approach, and managed to build to a climax of inescapable dread, ending with a scene that stayed with audiences long after they left the theater.
Helped tremendously by word-of-mouth, and what was then a fledgling internet, Blair Witch became a sensation — and, for better or worse, a role model. It has since spawned the next generation of raw footage films, ranging from Cloverfield to The Last Exorcism, as well as entire franchises like Paranormal Activity, all of them trying to recapture fake lightning in a bottle.
12. The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
Some of you may not be aware that this sci-fi-horror-comedy-musical, which trashes, slashes, and mashes-up B-movie conventions (and all to the tune of a 50’s roll-70’s glam rock soundtrack), started out on stage as The Rocky Horror Show. But unless you are from another planet, you know that it is also the cult classic that gave monstrous birth to the audience participation-midnight movie craze in 1975.
The story, narrated by a stuffy criminologist (Charles Gray aka M from the early James Bond films) involves an ultra-square virginal couple Brad and Janet (Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon) who find themselves, after their car breaks down, at a Gothic mansion right out of Hammer horror.
From the moment they meet skeletal handy-man Riff Raff (played for creeps by creator-writer Richard O’Brien), the wild-haired maid Magenta (Patricia Quinn), the groupie (Little Nell), and a Meatloaf named Eddie, the evening goes from bad to very bad. Of course, the main attraction is the sweet transvestite from Transylvania, the sexually omnivorous, high-heeled Dr. Frank N. Furter (played with diabolical glee by Tim Curry), intent upon creating a perfectly muscle-bound dumb blonde sexual playmate (the Rocky of the title.)
Delving into dark urges and our collective cultural film consciousness (with references to Frankenstein, Dr. Strangelove, King Kong, motorcycle exploitation flicks, etc.) this film is a heady mix of unconventional conventions where eventually everyone gets down or dirty. My advice is to see it the first time without the audience participation (if you want to actually hear the dialogue). After that, if you get hooked, see it in a theater and bring a bag of rice and some toilet paper. Great Scott!
11. Pale Rider (1985)
The title of this 1985 film is itself a mashup taken from the Book of Revelations – “Before me was a pale horse, and its rider named Death…”
But Pale Rider is not Clint Eastwood’s first foray into crossing the western with the uncanny. Take a look at 1972’s High Plains Drifter. As as a tale of greed, brutality, corruption, and revenge, it is however unique in resurrecting not only a genre considered dead by many in the mid-80’s, but perhaps its title character as well.
As if summoned by a young girl’s prayers from the spectacular snow-covered mountains of Sun Valley that loom in the background of nearly every scene, a mysterious man who comes to be called the Preacher arrives and begins to help a band of beleaguered prospectors fight a soulless mining corporation bent on running them off the land it is determined to strip-mine.
The enigmatic and at times seemingly superhuman Preacher does seem to be the prospectors’ savior, and his ability to fight inspires both love and respect, especially in the young girl played by Sydney Penny (if you hear echoes of Shane ringing off the mountains, give yourself a tin star). But whereas George Stevens’ title character was a mere mortal, Eastwood’s Preacher is something else, which he proves again and again, especially during a strange and spooky climactic shootout.
To say too much more would ruin the experience of seeing how lessons on the inevitable loss of innocence and the need to protect the environment, while offering a commentary on political and corporate corruption, can be artfully combined, especially when done by the iconoclastic Man With No Name as actor/director/producer.
10. Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)
Given the length of his career and knowledge of film history, it is not surprising that Woody Allen has produced a mashup or two…or more. Among the 40 plus films he has done in as many years, there is the futuristic sci-fi slapstick romance of Sleeper, the newsreel-inspired mock-documentary Zelig, and the creepy serial killer-on-the-loose-comedy viewed through a lens darkly, Shadows and Fog, inspired by German Expressionism as well as the Universal horror films of the 30’s.
But it is Allen’s fondness for the stock-in-trade trappings, characters, and sub-genres of crime films that seems particularly evident when we look at his oeuvre to date. In addition to Take The Money and Run, Play It Again Sam, Broadway Danny Rose, Bullets Over Broadway, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Small Time Crooks (and the previously mentioned Shadows and Fog), there are also two straightforward crime dramas: Match Point and Cassandra’s Dream.
Many people probably don’t know that Annie Hall was first conceived of as a crime film, its original plot later reworked into Manhattan Murder Mystery. But it is in Crimes and Misdemeanors where Allen shows his virtuosity in crossing and double-crossing genres, creating the perfect blend of typical nervous comic-romance with a pulp murder plot right out of Raymond Chandler.
When a philandering and socially prominent ophthalmologist’s mistress (played with not-so-quiet desperation by Angelica Huston) threatens to reveal their affair to his wife, the doctor (performed with a perfect blend of clear-eyed, cold-blooded suavity by Martin Landau) decides that the mistress must be taken out.
At the same time, an unhappily married documentary filmmaker, played of course by Allen, vies for Mia Farrow’s hand (she is a public television producer) with his charismatic brother-in-law, a successful television celebrity, played with charming smarm and ego by Alan Alda.
Part of the beauty of this meticulously crafted mashup (no spoilers here) is watching the two seemingly unrelated central plots unravel then eventually tie together – one dealing with God and morality and the consequences of guilt, the other offering both melancholy and hilarious glimpses into jealousy and thwarted desire in love and art. The stellar cast also has Jerry Orbach and Sam Waterson in crucial roles as a good brother gone blind, and a bad brother gone to seed.
9. Near Dark (1987)
Kathryn Bigelow’s stylishly bloody mashup — a vampire-western which is also a love story with elements of dark comedy (thanks mostly to a wildly off-the-wall performance by Bill Paxton as a blood-thirsty bad ol’ boy) -– breathed life into two genres in 1987 without ever using the word “vampire.”
Set in the heartland of horse ranchers, honky tonks, and tumbleweeds, Near Dark is downright archetypal, its strange mood underscored beautifully by the eerie music of Tangerine Dream. A handsome young cowboy, Caleb (the square-jawed and underrated Adrian Pasdar) is literally sucked into the world of the undead by a beautiful young blonde named Mae(Jenny Wright).
Caleb reluctantly becomes a member of a motley “family” of vampires (headed by the always lean and mean Lance Henriksen), who roam the back roads of Texas, stealing vehicles, and looking for victims. More than once, Caleb finds himself torn between near-dark urges and revulsion at what he must do to survive, now that he has been bitten by more than just the love bug.
Bigelow simultaneously exploits and embraces generic elements like bar fights and shoot-outs with the local authorities (one scene clearly pays homage to the motel escape in Bonnie and Clyde but with an ingenious twist). The smart script sticks to its conceit while playing with audience expectations about each genre’s “rules” — that vampires need to stay out of the sun, or that there will be a showdown in the abandoned streets between the forces of good and evil.
Skillfully using the wide-open spaces of the west and the inevitability of sunrise to maintain a tense and moody atmosphere, Bigelow even manages to elicit sympathy for the brutal bloodsuckers, particularly the youngest member of the “family.” Played with bravura pathos by Joshua Miller, Homer is an old soul trapped for eternity in a boy’s body, desperate for someone he can “play” with.