Monday 17 February 2020

Presidents Day (2016)

Director: David Zuckerman
Writers: Benjamin Goodwin, David Zuckerman and Jud Zumwalt
Stars: Monica Ricketts, David Zuckerman, Jud Zumwalt, Brittany Faith Rosoff, Chelsea Taylor Leech, Dax Hill, Benjamin Goodwin, Mike Ostroski and Michael Minto

Index: Horror Movie Calendar.

There are a lot of movies that look like they’d be great choices for the third Monday in February, but the list whittles itself down in no time flat. For example, I was planning to review President’s Day, a 2010 movie with a tiny $5,000 budget that was made by 25 year old Chris LaMartina, surely best known now for Call Girl of Cthulhu. However, while it did feature a mysterious murderer dressed up as Honest Abe, slashing his way through the candidates for Student Council President at Lincoln High (home of the Lincoln Lambs), it turned out to have nothing to do with the actual holiday known as President’s Day in eight states of the union, so it doesn’t count. Now, I did want it to count, just so that I could introduce you to Eddie Mills, who thinks being Student Council President would look great on his Naval Academy application. His pitch? “At Lincoln, everyone deserves a shot.” That’s glorious and, with a line like that, I don’t want to look at any other possibilities. But, sassinfrassin, this is a holiday horror book, so I had to move on.

Fortunately, this picture came along to help me out, and it’s absolutely set on what’s known as Presidents Day in three more states. That’s Presidents Day without any punctuation, unlike the President’s Day mentioned above, which features an apostrophe before the final S, or indeed Presidents’ Day, with the apostrophe after the final S, which is how the holiday is known in ten states, making it the most popular spelling. Oh, and that wandering apostrophe is just the beginning of the rabbit hole that was originally known as Washington’s Birthday, by which name it’s still known in six more states. Washington was born on 22nd February, 1732, though it was actually 11th February, 1731 at the time, because, while we think of George Washington as a famous American, he was born in the colonies of the British Empire, which was then on the Julian calendar. In 1752, the British Empire changed to the Gregorian calendar, and most people still alive at the time, Washington included, began to start celebrating according to that instead.

Now, if you’re following all this, we’ve still only covered 27 states, though one of those is Puerto Rico, which isn’t a state at all—it’s an “unincorporated territory”—so we actually have a lot more states to go. Between them, there are no less than fourteen different names for this holiday, which was only consolidated on the third Monday in February in 1971 under the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. Five states celebrate Abraham Lincoln too, who was born on 12th February, 1809, including mine: Arizona’s version is known clumsily as Lincoln/Washington/President’s Day. Montana has Lincoln’s and Washington’s Birthday, which is notably different to Minnesota, which celebrates Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthday. Alabama ditches Lincoln entirely to have a George Washington/Thomas Jefferson Birthday, even though the latter was born in April, and Arkansas’s version is George Washington’s Birthday and Daisy Bates Day, though she was a civil rights activist who was president only of the Arkansas Conference of the NAACP.

Just to make it even more confusing, some states don’t even bother with the whole February thing at all. New Mexico’s Presidents’ Day is held on the Friday after Thanksgiving, which everyone else calls Black Friday except for Indiana, where it’s called Lincoln’s Birthday, even though, if you remember, Lincoln was born in February. Then again, Indiana celebrates Washington’s Birthday on Christmas Eve, because February apparently sucks. Georgia had Washington’s Birthday on Christmas Eve too, at least until 2018, a quirk there being that it isn’t even a state holiday. That highlights, of course, how much in flux this holiday is, meaning that, while most Americans enjoy their day off on the third Monday of February, they have that day for a variety of different reasons. It’s all about George Washington, unless it isn’t because it’s about Abraham Lincoln too, or maybe Thomas Jefferson or even Daisy Bates, or perhaps all the presidents at once, even William Henry Harrison, who died only 31 days into his term.

Fortunately, this film has us covered, because it doesn’t just feature a single slasher in a Lincoln mask, it features a whole swathe of undead killer presidents, including Harrison. If I counted correctly, there are sixteen of them listed in the credits, with three actors doubling up to play a couple each. The earliest is Washington and the most recent Nixon, given that undead Lincoln couldn’t afford the SAG rates needed to include Reagan. Yes, that’s a joke in the actual film, because this is surely the wackiest look back at history since Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. In fact, it’s very self-aware and the filmmakers sold me on the project with the very first gag. It kicks off like a found footage movie, with Clarence filming Lilly and Lilly hating him doing it. Then his battery dies and that’s it for the handheld angle. “Good,” says Lilly. “It would have been super annoying if you’d have been filming us all weekend.” Sadly, we’re then introduced to a dork in a yellow tank and a man bun called Brett, who’s clearly trying to be Ace Ventura but more annoying.

I couldn’t figure out if Jud Zumwalt was aiming for Brett to be a surfer dude, a stoner dude, a gay dude or a slacker dude. Maybe he was trying to be all the above and yet still somehow ended up as the dumb jock. Certainly, within ten seconds of meeting Brett, I’d chalked him in for the first death. I wanted it to be slow and painful. And soon. He’s hardly the only annoying character, because there’s also Ruttigger, whose name isn’t really Ruttigger at all but Wellington, because Brett’s both a moron and a bully. Wellington is a stereotypical nerd, there to write Brett’s American history paper. They’re two of seven characters we meet at the beginning of the film and the intros end with the leading lady, Lilly, pronouncing, “If everyone’s done establishing themselves now, we should go.” In opening credits order, they’re Lilly, the normal lead; Jake, a cool but sensitive biker; Brett, the annoying one; Ashley, Brett’s unappreciated horny girlfriend; Max, Brett’s goth sister; Clarence, the token black guy; and “Ruttigger”, the abused nerd help.

So off they all go into a whole succession of horror movie clichés, starting with Brett’s uncle Frank’s old hunting cabin. The biggest problem the film has is that it’s all cliché, but the biggest success it has is that it knows it and it goes there deliberately, every one of these characters a deliberate stereotype overplayed for effect. It isn’t remotely as commercial a knowing dig at horror film logic as Scary Movie, let alone Scream, but that’s its greatest selling point. You don’t need millions of dollars to point out the stupidity of the genre, you just need insight and enough of a knack with dialogue to have characters say what we in the cheap seats are thinking. For instance, they pause at a toll booth that’s no more believable than the one in Blazing Saddles so a spooky toll booth dude can be ominous. “Ain’t nothing fun about Presidents Day,” he rants. “I've seen some shit, shit only your nightmares can comprehend.” By the time he reaches “It could be the last day of your life”, a voice from the back of the car pipes up, “Why are we not driving away?”

He also throws a mysterious book into the back of the car, so that, while these stereotypes fail to spark any emotional connections and Jake can emote over how he still hasn’t got over Lilly dumping him for someone more mature—in the first grade—Maxine can recite a bunch of esoteric gibberish from the book and the surprisingly limber corpse of Abraham Lincoln can rise from his grave outside, complete with stovepipe hat and axe. Suddenly, dead presidents are everywhere, even though nothing makes any sense at all. Max does says she can explain this “perfect MacGuffin” of a book and she’s about to when Lincoln bursts in through the door of the cabin and skewers her to the wall with a hurled American flag, still on its pole. Wellington might doubt the plausibility of what’s starting to happen, but it really spices up the film and gets it moving. We’re twenty-five minutes in with our first death scene now behind us and we’re totally ready for the slew of historical jokes that are, quite frankly, the best thing about the film.

Sure, the horror movie jokes are still fun, such as Clarence being pissed when his survival odds turn out to be exactly as cinematic racism suggested all along or Ashley running outside and continually losing clothing to the foliage. “Come on!” she hurls at the sky. “That didn’t even make any sense!” But the best ones are historical in nature, whether it’s FDR failing to give chase in the woods in his wheelchair or his namesake, Teddy Roosevelt, mounting the hunt instead. Ashley gets away though. “A canal! My greatest foe!” Some of these jokes are cheap, like George Washington mimicking Jack Nicholson’s famous door routine from The Shining. Some are obscure, like William Henry Taft’s portly frame having him stuck in the bathtub for the entire movie; there’s irony in him wanting a snort of Brett’s drugs given that he was the Attorney General but it’s an irony that has to be explained on screen. Every member of the audience is surely going to know a heck of a lot more about American history than Brett but most might learn something.

For instance, who would have conjured up the solution Ashley figures out, which is to look into the bathroom mirror and say “sic semper tyrannis” three times to manifest John Wilkes Booth? Just in case, that means “ever thus to tyrants” and it’s the line Booth uttered as he assassinated Lincoln in the Ford Theater. Who got both meanings of his “break a leg” comment? He wasn’t merely an actor, for whom that’s a standard phrase; he also jumped onto the stage after shooting Lincoln and actually broke his leg. This sort of detail is everywhere here, so much so that I’m sure that I, as a Brit, didn’t catch all of it. I adored the running joke that has James K. Polk feeling unappreciated by his fellow presidents but I’m sure there’s specific meaning buried in there that eluded me. I didn’t realise why John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were feuding friends until I looked that up after the movie ended. Not everything is as obvious as JFK wielding a baseball bat signed by Joe DiMaggio.

It’s bizarre to realise that this puerile, moronic, sophomoric movie is often also cleverly hilarious. In fact, it wouldn’t be too unfair to compare this to Monty Python’s Life of Brian. No, it isn’t remotely in the same league, but both films take a look at history and our understanding of and interaction with it in surprisingly incisive fashion. The meta scripts overshadow the obvious lack of budgets and production values, with the costumes cheap and the props cheaper. The actors are all deliberately over the top, epitomising a stereotype each. Perhaps most overtly, both pictures actually get funnier the more we see them. Sure, I cringe every time I throw this one on, and it’s a special character indeed that’s more annoying than Brett, but by the half hour mark, my eyes are bright and I’m laughing aloud, not just at the jokes but at the anticipation of them as I remember what’s coming next. Actually knowing what’s coming helps for a change and spoilers become incentives to keep watching. Oh yeah, we’re coming up to that bit!

And that makes me all the more surprised when I realise how little else these folk have done. I don’t know what budget they had to work with, if indeed they even had one, but whatever it was wasn’t much at all, as evidenced by the fact that the cast are generally the crew. The writers, for example, were Benjamin Goodwin, David Zuckerman and Jud Zumwalt. They also play Wellington, Jake and Brett respectively, three major roles. All three were producers, and Zumwalt the executive producer. Goodwin also served as the unit production manager and Zuckerman both the editor and director, as well as a contributor to the visual effects. Costuming was the domain of Chelsea Taylor Leech, who played Maxine, and the casting was done by Michael Minto, who played John Wilkes Booth. Assistant director Jordan Leach, the remaining producer, played both Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Jackson. Clearly there weren’t a lot of people traipsing around Idyllwild Park, outside of Los Angeles, making this movie, but they got the job done.

And yet Zuckerman has only directed one other feature, The Vigilante, also released in 2016. Zumwalt’s most prolific credits are as production assistants on Hollywood features as edgy as Veronica Mars: The Movie and Muppets Most Wanted. Goodwin has only been otherwise involved in short films. The biggest name involved is likely to be Mike Ostroski, who you’ve probably seen on television even if you don’t realise it, which you probably don’t. I’m rather shocked that writers this imaginative who were able to finish this feature film, make it funny and get it distributed, haven’t gone on to complete another one and another and another. I truly hope that they’ve been contacted by people who have seen this film, almost as much as I hope that those people are schoolkids who had trouble with American history but saw this and learned enough to pass an exam like the one Brett was doomed to fail. The icing on the cake would be if they explained that to their teachers. Hey, stranger things have happened.

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