A black comedy about a small town beauty pageant and an 80s tech noir thriller from Michael Crichton
The Archivist — Welcome to the Archive. As home video formats have evolved over the years, a multitude of films have found themselves in danger of being forgotten forever due to their niche appeal. Thankfully, Warner Bros. established the Archive Collection, a Manufacture-On-Demand DVD operation devoted to thousands of idiosyncratic and ephemeral works of cinema. The Archive has expanded to include a streaming service, revivals of out-of-print DVDs, and factory pressed Blu-ray discs. Join us as we explore this treasure trove of cinematic discovery!
Drop Dead Gorgeous
I jumped at a chance to return to our Archivist column this week when graced with the news that Warner were about to parade out one of their finest comedies, the darkly delicious Drop Dead Gorgeous. Michael Patrick Jann’s mockumentary takes us to Mount Rose, Minnesota, and the 1995 edition of the American teen Princess Pageant. We’re introduced to the young female contestants, their families, and the panel of judges. Despite many believing that this year’s winner is already a foregone conclusion, the emergence of a rival contender threatens to cause an upset, one that pales in comparison to a series of sinister events that start to occur around the pageant and its participants, some deadlier than others.
Refreshingly, the film is not so focused on the murder mystery angle as it is in reveling in the the quirks of these townfolk. A sharp script from Lona Williams gifts us with cartoonish, but well considered characters who fill out Mount Rose, beyond those involved in the pageant. Top of the heap are the Leemans, with the patriarch Lester (Sam McMurray) being as bold as his status as wealthiest man in town would call for, who with his wife Gladys (Kirstie Alley nearly stealing the show)as a former Queen herself, have been long grooming daughter Becky (Denise Richards) her for the (expected) win. From the other side of the tracks is Amber Adkins (Kirsten Dunst), a girl who lives in a trailer park with her mom Annette (Ellen Barkin). Amber aspires to leave Mount Rose behind and become the next Diane Sawyer, and sees winning the pageant as being the only hope of achieving that.
An array of other contestants, all with their own reasons for joining, and their own particular (and often hilarious) ‘talents’ to share, fill in the class void between these two. It’s a theme that opens up the film beyond it’s small town setting, Amber’s arc sure to resonate with many who are faced with the reality that hard work and innate ability sometimes pale in comparison to wealth, connections, and privilege. Tied to this social commentary, Drop Dead Gorgeous opens up a scathing broadside at at antiquated notion of beauty pageants, contrasting the path offered to these girls with that to the boys (football scholarships, but none more direct as showcasing the return of the previous year’s Mount Rose Queen, Mary Johanson (Alexandra Holden), now consumed by an eating disorder and barely able to speak at the ceremony, hair falling out, propped up in a wheelchair with oxygen while she performs a jaw-droppingly horrifying routine.
This isn’t a film that rams social commentary down your throat, rather one that sneaks it in while leaning hard into uncomfortable comedy and quirky characters. We’re talking Christopher Guest levels of satire with a deeply black comedic streak running through it, skirting the edge of being poor taste. Mental illness, sexuality, politics, small town traditions and more are all fair game, while over the top set pieces lock down the cult status the film has received. A can of beer melted into a character’s hand during a trailer park fire and a pageant duet with a Jesus mannequin (on a cross) set to “Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You” come to mind. Brimming with a richness of talent, you’ll see every corner of Mount Rose filled with familiar faces and brilliant character actors, such as Ellen Barkin, Brittany Murphy, Michael McShane, Adam West, Thomas Lennon, Mo Gaffney, Mindy Sterling, and more, making the most of their moments, big and small. A tip of the hat is required for Allison Janney (The West Wing, I, Tonya), as Annette’s best friend Loretta, a magnificently funny, crude, and tender figure. Also to Amy Adams as cheerleader Leslie Miller which has to go down as one of the finest debut performances for any actor (GO MUSKIES, WOO!). You heard me.
Beauty pageants, high school drama murder mystery, and small town character study all rolled into one, Drop Dead Gorgeous is a crude, and delectably black comedy that manages to remain clever and sweet, while casting off any attempts at subtlety.
Warner Archive deliver a superb transfer for the film. Colors are rich, detail is notable, textural features are strong. The image retains a nice level of grain and is free of any artifacts or blemishes. Extra features are sadly limited to a theatrical trailer.
In keeping with Archivist tradition, we like to take in a pairing of features and after a lead in of Drop Dead Gorgeous, it was Looker that caught the eye (pun obviously intended). The film again, involving themes of body image and identity, but uses them to set in motion an 80s tech thriller. It stars Albert Finney (yes, THE Albert Finney) as Dr. Larry Roberts, a renowned plastic surgeon who comes under suspicion after a number of his female clients have been found dead under mysterious circumstances. The work done for each was done following instructions to make changes that may be largely imperceptible to the human eye, minute alterations to already beautiful women. His curiosity piqued, and his reputation and freedom on the line, he looks into the cases and soon finds ties between them and an advertising research firm, Digital Matrix. Their use of advanced technology and some questionable tactics to control their intellectual property, has swept up into their affairs a man who is one of the very tools they were using to further their agenda, and steps must be taken to protect it.
Jurassic Park, Westworld, Congo, Sphere, Disclosure, The Andromeda Strain, Michael Crichton has made a long career out of the clash between man and science. Taking the director’s chair for Looker, he continues that trend with a torrid tech thriller. In this instance, a nefarious scheme by Digital Matrix, first in using AI technology to evaluate women and refine their appearance for maximum advertising impact, and later, scanning sophisticated 3D models of them to use appropriate their likeness, giving them a paycheck for their rest of their lives in return…hint hint.
The Congress offers a more cerebral and modern spin on this idea, here it unravels with a healthy degree of over the top silliness. The script is patchy, the tone is verging on melodramatic, and some of the performances are over the top, see James Coburn as CEO John Reston, and Tim Rossovich as a muscly mustached henchman. Albert Finney, even with such a varied career, feels like an offbeat choice, and there is an incredulity to his work here. He admirably manages to work some nobility into the character of a cosmetic surgeon, no small feat, and cultivate both sympathy for these women and scrutiny for the industry they work in. The message and themes are there, but some of the tone and execution push the film into something more entertaining that thrilling.
It’s hard to argue that Looker has aged well, the film fell into that trap of making a big deal of technological revelations of it’s era, which now look more than a little ludicrous. 20% of the runtime is probably spent showing key cards unlocking doors or lingering on screen animations. But these things and the overall style add to the kitschy charm. But the film does seem to have become remarkably prescient in some ways. Technology has permeated out lives, social media and and filters have allowed tech companies to put a stamp on how we identify and present ourselves, and how we perceive others. Crichton has crafted better films, without a doubt, but Looker remains true to his predilections, entertains, and delivers both a stonking theme song AND a mind-altering raygun called a L.O.O.K.E.R. (Light Ocular-Oriented Kinetic Emotive Responses).
My context for image quality stems from a pretty wonderful 35mm screening of Looker a few years ago, bless you Weird Wednesday! The Warner image is pretty good, with details impressing, colors well represented, and a thick luster of natural grain over a clean image. The blacks can vary at times, highlighting a few contrast issues, but overall its a robust presentation.
Looper Extra Features
- Introduction from Michael Crichton: Nearly 5 minutes in length, Crichton gives something akin to a summary of his commentary, about the conception of the film, and the various elements that drove the story
- Commentary from Michael Crichton: Recorded back in 2007, it’s worth a listen if only to listen to the man acknowledged the elements of the film that were hyped up at the time, but now we encounter routinely in our lives. He also touches on the casting, production problems, and film technology advances
- Deleted Scene: Around 8 minutes in length, it depicts a scene where Roberts ad Cindy are held captive and given an expositiony speech by Reston about his plans. Maybe it gives away too much, and certainly affects the pacing of the film, but there are some elements that would have clarified the plot
- Theatrical Trailer
Looker is available via Warner Archive now
Drop Dead Gorgeous is available via Warner Archive now