Robert De Niro’s ugly mug: a roundabout review of Righteous Kill by way of a long-forgotten horror flick called The Flesh Eaters

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One of my earliest movie-going memories is of being dropped off at Chicago’s Nortown Theatre with my friend Saul when we were nine or ten years old to see an ultra-low-budget horror movie about microscopic monsters called The Flesh Eaters.  Some promotional genius at the studio had come up with the idea of offering all attendees one free packet of blood per ticket.  

The packets, which were handed to moviegoers along with your ticket stub, were similar to the ones used for soy sauce in carry-out Chinese, and contained some sort of viscous red liquid that must have been edible.  As idiotic, tasteless, and utterly inappropriate promotional gimmicks go, this one was bloody brilliant — at least in the sense that, to this day, I can still remember it vividly.

Although my memory doesn’t extend far enough to recall if Saul and I tore open our packets and attempted to swallow the contents, I wouldn’t be surprised if we had.  We had no money for anything other than our tickets, and before the movie started, we had loitered around the concession stand disconsolately running our fingers through spilled salt and licking it off, until an elderly gentleman took pity on us and bought us each a bag of popcorn and a Coke. 

What an old man was doing at a flick like The Flesh Eaters, and why he himself was lurking near the candy stand and giving gifts to little boys, were questions that we never thought to ask.  Instead, we innocently sipped our soda pop, even during scenes like the one where a character quaffed a beaker swimming with the eponymous miniature killers — described variously by All Movie Guide as “aquatic flesh-munching amoebas” and “sparkly little death-blobs” — and suffered for his efforts a gaping hole in his stomach, through which gushed several gallons of blood — fake, like the stuff in the packets, but nonetheless terrifying to a little boy.  For many years afterwards, I associated the greasy odor of melted butter and salt with the smell of blood (though that didn’t stop me from enjoying popcorn whenever I could scrape together a quarter for a bag.)

What does this have to do with Righteous Kill, starring the great Al Pacino and Robert De Niro and the gorgeous Carla Gugino?  Righteous Kill is an urban crime drama that isn’t especially bloody as these affairs go, and certainly isn’t a horror movie at all, unless you are as freaked-out as I was by coming face to face with humankind’s inexorable forced march towards mortality as inadvertently exemplified by the dessicated Pacino, who resembles nothing so much as a curled-up slice of ham that has been forgotten at the bottom of your refrigerator since last spring. 

Despite his ruined face, Pacino is, at least, still an energetic and interesting actor, unlike his castmate De Niro, whose immensely expressive dramaturgical repetoire has lately been reduced to a single, endlessly repeated facial expression.  You know the one: That bulldog grimace that looks like an illustration you might find in a child’s encyclopedia for the concept of “frown.”

The movie, as it turns out, is as lazy and bloodless and by-the-numbers as De Niro himself.  It concerns a series of brutal killings committed by…oh, never mind…and the leaden feeling I had as I exited the multiplex probably is what made me want to remember what it was that made me love going to the movies in the first place. 

Back then, there were sometimes variety shows on stage between the two movies of a double feature, and those mysterious glass-globed machines in the lobby that dispensed red-hot cashews, and ushers in braided uniforms, and an endless variety of comedy and drama and horror (sometimes in the audience as well as on the screen), and Ju-Jubees that, using thumb and forefinger, you could fire at the napes of the people in front of you — our very own “neon-colored little death-niblets” — during the rare dull stretches of Godzilla vs. Mothra. 

I can’t travel back in time to when I was nine years old, but if I could, I’d be willing to bet that what I felt when I staggered out into the sunlight after The Flesh Eaters, or Jason and the Argonauts, or The Disorderly Orderly, or whatever, was pure unadulterated (and un-adult) happiness. 

As I got older, my taste improved a bit, until that day in high school that my buddies and I saw Stanley Kubrick’s mind-blowing 2001: A Space Odyssey, and left the theatre dazed, in awe, and forever in love with the movies.  From then on, it was a race to see every movie ever made, good, bad or indifferent, because some of them — Sergio Leone’s movies, for example, and later Zhang Yimou’s — were amazing, and nearly every one, even the dumb ones, had something interesting to recommend them. 

When I was in college, I worked nights as a typesetter for a publisher that distributed television programming guides, and part of my job was to type in the descriptions of old movies.  In the off hours, usually around three or four in the morning, I would count the movies I had already seen, and even then my list was more than a thousand movies long.  I can only imagine how long it would be today, if I had the time to count. 

But lately, I’m starting to fall behind in my movie-going.  The predominance of CGI, the utter falsity of emotion on display in most Hollywood product, and the joyless, stultifying sameness of scripts (thanks to those screenplay consultants that tell you every movie “has” to have three acts, and must have a precipitating event on page 17) have taken most of the pleasure out of the movies, as have the soulless multiplexes where they’re shown.  If I were a nine-year-old kid today, I wouldn’t even bother flicking Ju Jubees at the necks of the automatons in front of me, watching Matthew McConaughey and Kate Hudson play-acting their way through whatever detestable nonsense they’re getting paid millions for; I doubt they’d feel a thing.   

This growing distaste for the movies is not a function of age, I don’t think, though I’m not precisely young, and I’m aware that this complaint could be interpreted as one of those wearisome “everything was better when I was a kid”  whines that I, too, dislike.  It’s the flicks that are sliding rapidly downhill, not me.  (Okay, maybe I am too, to some immeasurably small degree.) 

Nor is my complaint a function of satiety, even though I have by now many thousands of movies and a few too many tubs of popcorn under my belt.  Because the fact of the matter is that movies like Righteous Kill are infinitely more ancient and cynical in spirit than I am or any of my friends are.  I still love the movies; it’s just that ugly bulldog grimace I hate.   


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One Response to “Robert De Niro’s ugly mug: a roundabout review of Righteous Kill by way of a long-forgotten horror flick called The Flesh Eaters”

  1. This was beautiful. And how I wish I had read it before going to see Righteous Kill this weekend!

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