[Happy Monday, readers! With the 2017 Sundance Film Festival beginning this week, we thought it would be fun to take a look back at some of the great midnight movies that have come out of the fest over the years. Be sure to check back here each day this week for more Midnight Memories from Daily Dead!]
The Sundance Film Festival has hosted the premieres of many a great genre offering; from Lucky McKee’s May in 2002 to Tommy Wirkola’s Dead Snow: Red vs. Dead in 2014, the festival spotlights genre work by turns impactful, thoughtful, or just delightful. And many of the films’ backstories are often as inspired as the work itself. Case in point: Jason Eisener’s Hobo with a Shotgun, which premiered January 21st, 2011 at Sundance, and is still as fun to watch as its journey to the screen is fascinating.
Back in 2007, when Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino were set to release Grindhouse (their double feature love letter to exploitation cinema), they announced a contest for fake exploitation trailers to go along with ones already filmed by established filmmakers such as Edgar Wright and Rob Zombie.
Canadian filmmaking aspirant Eisener (who has gone on to helm segments for The ABCs of Death and V/H/S 2) and two comrades, Rob Cotterill and writer John Davies, quickly pulled together very limited funds (150 bucks) and over six days shot the faux trailer for Hobo with a Shotgun, which won the contest and was shown at the front end of the double feature when it played in Canada on 186 screens nationwide. The hilarious two-minute trailer became a YouTube sensation and led the boys to make the clever Christmas tree revenge short Treevenge (2008), which kept them on the film festival radar. Impressed by Eisener’s innate talent behind the camera, Rhombus Media (The Red Violin) ponied up $3 million for the boys to expand on Hobo and make a viable feature with a built-in cult audience.
The story essentially hits all the beats from the trailer (and a lot of the same dialogue, too)—a vagrant (played by David Brunt in the trailer, and assayed by one Rutger Hauer in the feature) rides the rails into Hope City, or as the spray-painted overhead sign exclaims, Scum City. Broken down and dilapidated, the city is overrun with criminals, a crooked police force, and citizens too poor and powerless to do anything about it. Our hobo just wants to raise enough money to buy a lawnmower to live out his landscaping dreams.
Scum City is run by The Drake, a sleazy middle-aged man and his two sons Ivan and Slick—as Tom Cruise wannabees from the Risky Business era—who are bad news all around as they terrorize the townsfolk in ingenious ways. (Don’t cross them if you want to keep your head.) Once Hauer interferes and saves hapless hooker Abby from their clutches, he takes action on behalf of the downtrodden and desperate, and attempts to rid the city of its diseased corruption.
Going from a zero budget to $3 million for a first-time director is a leap of faith all too rare; hats off to Rhombus Media for recognizing the team’s talent not only from the trailer but especially from how polished and confident Treevenge is. And while the original Hobo trailer keeps with the ’70s grindhouse aesthetic of gritty melodrama, in the film Eisener delves into many different toy trunks as an influence, and he isn’t shy about it, either. Shot in anamorphic widescreen (Carpenter) with deeply saturated colors (Argento), the film plies the “anything goes" gore fests of early Peter Jackson (think Dead Alive) filtered through the Troma (The Toxic Avenger) ’80s. For a first-time feature, Hobo is supremely confident; characters are boldly introduced through well-worn stereotypes—the hooker with the heart of gold, the psychotic, smirking villains, and the reticent hero—and play out in an arc familiar to anyone who’s been raised on the same diet of exploitation and horror.
But we don’t necessarily watch these types of films for story and depth of character, sometimes we come for sensations; Eisener and writer Davies provide the viewer with a candy-coated cavalcade of nonstop shocks and giggles for the ADD-addled B-movie lover’s mind. Every frame of Hobo is filled with pulsating life and death; not a minute is wasted due to Eisener’s sharp editing and need to make this shoot count. However, they do provide the viewer with an anchor amongst the mayhem, lest the barrage of Day-Glo splatter becomes overwhelming. (And it can, if you’re not vibrating on the same frequency.) That anchor is Hauer.
A leading man’s life in his rearview mirror, Rutger Hauer at this point in his career was relegated to doctors, sidekicks, and villains. What a brilliant stroke it was to get him for Hobo. His commanding, hulking presence provides a literal center to the film, but more importantly he gives the movie an unexpected poignancy—67 years old at the time, his weathered face emitted a shorthand for being beat down by life. But it’s the Hauer grin, the sideways smile when he’s about to hand someone their comeuppance that really sells it. While nearly everyone else in the film is flailing at the top of their lungs (on purpose, I suppose; it’s that kind of movie), Hauer knows all too well that a perfect pause is as good as a well-placed zinger. His character may be nameless, but Rutger Hauer provides him with the beating heart of the picture.
I can’t help but feel that there’s a bit of Eisener and friends reflected in the Hauer character—the hobo staring through the pawn shop window at the lawnmower on display, dreaming of a better future for himself. Eisener dreamed of making a movie, and, unlike the titular hero of Hobo with a Shotgun, he got to take it down and wheel it out of the shop.
Click here to read more Sundance Midnight Memories from the Daily Dead team!