Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Full Moon Fever: The Gingerdead Man

by Patrick Bromley
 It's harder than you think to make a "bad" movie on purpose.

Any filmmaker who sets out to make a movie that's deliberately campy or cultish is facing an uphill battle. For every Nurse 3D, there are a dozen Snakes on a Planes or Sharknados that feel cynical and calculated and which, worst of all, fail to entertain.

I'm not somebody who gets a lot of out watching terrible movies and laughing at their terribleness. I have seen and been amused by stuff like The Room and Birdemic, but have no need to go back to them. I got everything they had to offer the first time. I don't begrudge those movies, either, because their respective directors weren't setting out to make cult classics embraced for their badness. They were trying to make good films, and the appeal lies in their complete failure to achieve that goal. No such effort/result gap exists with films that are engineered to be "bad," meaning they need to work overtime to be entertaining. We know the filmmakers are capable of better but deliberately aiming for less. That shit won't fly for some of us.

This brings me to 2005's The Gingerdead Man, the first entry in one of the more famous and lucrative franchises in the Full Moon Features stable. The movie has a lot of things going for it to make it a self-aware cult success. It has a funny title and a crazy premise. It has the ironic casting of Gary Busey. It is a movie that knows it is silly and tries to do "bad" on purpose. But The Gingerdead Man either isn't interested or isn't able to be the kind of movie it should be. There is a difference between "good" bad and bad bad. The Gingerdead Man is the latter.
The movie opens with crazy murderer Millard Findlemeyer (Gary Busey in his only live-action appearance in the film) shooting up a Texas diner. He kills several patrons, including the family of young Sarah (Robin Sydney), who is also shot and left for dead but survives. Years later, Sarah has opened up her own bakery and one day receives a mysterious package containing gingerbread seasoning. Sarah does what anyone else would do: she immediately uses the random seasoning in her latest batch of cookies. Like a baker. When her co-worker Brick (Jonathan Chase) accidentally cuts his hand and gets blood in the dough, they do what anyone would do: they immediately bake the bloody dough into cookies. Like bakers.

But the joke is on them! The mysterious gingerbread seasoning was actually the ashes of Millard Findlemeyer (who was executed in the electric chair), left by his mother, who is supposedly a witch. When the blood mixes with the ashes, it resurrects Findlemeyer in cookie form -- the GINGERDEAD MAN is born. He spends the rest of the movie (which, if you're keeping count, is only about 35-40 minutes) stalking Sarah, her boyfriend Amos (Ryan Locke), her drunk Mom Betty (Margaret Blye), her co-worker Julie (Daniela Melgoza) and bitchy Lorna (Alexia Aleman), a spoiled brat whose father owns the competing bakery across the street and who has eyes for Sarah's boyfriend. Can they survive the night trapped in the bakery? Because they're not trapped in the bakery. They could leave at, like, literally any point.
There's little denying that the premise for The Gingerdead Man is kind of funny. Despite the fact that it's obvious the writers started with the title and worked backwards, the idea that a notorious killer's ashes are mixed into cookie dough and bring back Gary Busey as a murderous cookie feels rife with ludicrous potential. So in the spirit of the film, let's overlook the leaps in logic required for this to play out, like the fact that Sarah willingly uses a box of spice mysteriously dropped on her doorstep with a piece of paper literally taped to it that says "Gingerbread Spice," or the fact that Sarah and Brick use cookie dough that's been contaminated by blood. Or that for Mrs. Findlemeyer's plan to work, she would have to know that blood would be mixed into the dough and that Sarah would use it anyway (lucky for her, the plan is carried out perfectly thanks to incompetence and a number of health code violations). The problem with all of this exposition is that it basically takes place off screen. We are told (via newspaper clippings) that Findlemeyer was executed. We are told (via ominous voiceover) that he vows to come back and get revenge. We are told (I don't fucking remember how) that his mom is a witch.

Film is a visual medium. We should have seen Sarah in her hospital bed. We should have seen Gary Busey strapped into the electric chair, swearing his revenge before the switch is thrown. We should see Mrs. Findlemeyer packing the ashes into a box and leaving them on the doorstep. Not only would it make all of this exposition clearer and connect us more to the events that transpire, but it would make Gingerdead Man feel more LIKE A MOVIE. Because in its current form, it does not.
Running about 60 minutes before the end credits, The Gingerdead Man feels flat and uncinematic in almost every way despite being directed by Charles Band, a guy who's been in the business since the '60s and has directed or produced a bunch of really cool movies. Here, the photography is static. The sets and lighting feel like a stage play. The performances are about on par with present-day Full Moon features, which is to say they range from slightly amateurish to outright lousy. Robin Sidney garners our sympathy by seeming frail and being very pretty, but no one else really registers even when they're going for over-the-top caricatures.

I've only seen a handful of modern-era Full Moon movies, but they have all problems similar to ones apparent in The Gingerdead Man. Yes, the budgets are considerably smaller than the ones Band was working with in the '80s and early '90s, but little attempt has been made to work around those limitations with invention. Instead, we get movies shot on one or two interior sets, a cast of only five or six and a monster or monsters (usually small in stature so that toy replicas can be produced and sold) that's rarely glimpsed in the movie. Gingerdead Man sports a pretty cool creature design by FX great John Carl Buechler, but doesn't know what to do with it. He pops out from time to time and says a one liner (though rarely are they the clever baking puns I think it's fair to expect), but he's not on screen a whole lot. Even having the voice of Gary Busey doesn't help. It could be anyone speaking for the little killer.
Oh, and speaking of killing -- and I'm sorry if this is a spoiler -- the Gingerdead Man has two victims in the entire movie. Yes, a movie about a murderous cookie doesn't give the cookie much opportunity to murder. Making matters worse is the fact that one of the killings involves Gingerdead Man hitting someone with a car. Funny as the visual gag of a tiny cooking behind the wheel may be, there's nothing particularly inventive about that death.

It's another example of the many ways that The Gingerdead Man plays it safe and, I hate to say it, boring. Beyond the concept and the title, the movie fails to embrace its own ridiculousness (ok, maybe it does when one character figures out how to defeat the cookie, but by then it feels too late). The gore gags need to be way over the top. Hell, they need to exist at all. The script needs to be self aware in a way that's funny. Too many scenes involve characters standing around making illogical decisions or talking about their own relationships when they should be focused on a killer cookie. This movie is about a killer fucking cookie! All I want is for it to be the best possible movie about a killer cookie it can be.

Just three entries into this Full Moon Madness experiment and I'm realizing that much of my affection for Charles Band's work is from his Empire International Pictures days. That's when Band was responsible for movies like Re-Animator, Trancers, From Beyond, Crawlspace and Robot Jox. These later Full Moon Features don't just suffer from budgetary restrictions; they suffer from a lack of imagination. Once the monster and poster design is chosen, it feels like no one tries as hard. I hope I'm wrong. I've got a lot of these still to go.

The good news is that I did watch the trailer for Gingerdead Man 2: The Passion of the Crust, and not only does it have an even more inspired title than the first film, but also appears to be an improvement over the first film in every way. I know it's just a trailer, but it really looks like exactly the movie they should have made the first time around. I can't wait to see it.

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  1. Absolutely dead on. The Gingerdead Man plays out like the outline was written in 20 minutes, filmed at a friend's bakery, and dialog made up just before the camera rolled. If you told me that this movie was slapped together from start to finish in about 8 days with a budget of 86 dollars, I'd say that seemed generous. Busey is wasted and there's no fun or horror to be had in a movie that should be filled with both.

    Luckily there's a ton of older movies on Full Moon Streaming, as well as a bunch from other directors, such as their Blue Underground exploitation acquisitions, to wash the awful taste of Gingerdead out of our mouths when the ridiculously long credits roll.

  2. Movies like Gingerdead Man don't interest me at all (just like Sharknado ugh) because movies that are so bad they are good have to come from a place of legitimately trying to be good hence why I love certain MST3K movies-for example Time Chasers or Jack Frost.

    Movies like Gingerdead Man know what they are making but instead of saying "Hey nobody is going to take this seriously so lets just go freaking nuts" they say "eh whatever it's a paycheck". A bigger budget movie that kind of reminds me of this is Bride of Chucky. The movie is so ridiculous but since it goes all out on its concept it makes for a fun time. I really wish Freddy vs Jason would have gone with this tone the whole time cause thats the only times when the movie fires on all cylinders.

  3. Question: If I still want to see this, have you done a good job or a bad job as a reviewer?

    I think you made a great distinction between good bad and bad bad - I'd never really thought of it, but the good bad movies I've enjoyed, and The Room is a great example, probably are the result of a genuine attempt to be good gone awry. Something like Sharknado, on the other hand, I couldn't get through 15 minutes. Maybe I'll avoid this after all.

    1. The movie's special genius is that you can't NOT want to see it after hearing about it, but it really doesn't deliver on that excitement or enthusiasm. It's just kind of a drag. Let me report back after seeing the sequel, because it really does seem more like the movie we all picture in our heads when we hear about this one.

  4. I saw the second sequel, "Saturday Night Cleaver", for Scary Movie Month. I hadn't seen the first two(Honestly, I didn't think I was messing a lot by skipping them.) I hate to burst your bubble, Patrick, but I don't think any lesson was learned. If anything, they double-up on the things you disliked about the first one.

  5. While the first movie is a waste, the second is a wonderful send-up of the kind of crank-em-up B-movie factory that Full Moon epitomizes. Definitely worth the time to watch it.

    1. Awesome! Great to hear. I am excited again. Thank you!