Biopics are a little like the savings bonds of the movie world. They’re dependable and usually low-risk; for every Diana or Amelia or Jobs, you’re sure to find dozens of true-life stories making reasonable returns on their investment. The biopic is both a sturdy workhorse and an easy road to prestige, attracting the highest and mightiest of the film world while still maintaining the “people have heard of this before, probably” branding appeal of an action figure action movie.
So naturally, biopics are everywhere, choking our rivers and breeding like rats. And while they might vary a little bit from genre to genre — The Wolf of Wall Street, 12 Years a Slave and Saving Mr. Banks would certainly appear on different shelves in some mythical, non-demolished Blockbuster Video- they’re all burdened down by one gigantic common factor: The Truth.
How is it that biopics still haven’t started playing fast and loose with the real-life events they’re based around? I’m not talking about a few fudged details here and there, like when Lincoln tweaked a few 13th amendment votes or when We Bought a Zoo shamefully moved its titular zoo from England to the United States. What hasn’t really happened yet is the biopic that takes a well-known historical figure and places him or her into a situation that’s clearly meant to be fictional. Sadly, the only real example thus far is Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, and the less said about that particular filmmaking venture, the better.
But now the “fake biopic” genre might have a legitimate leg to stand on, thanks to Max Landis.
According to Deadline, Landis has begun work on one of the many Harry Houdini biopics currently sequestered in Development Hell — Sony‘s Houdini film, in particular, leaving Summit Entertainment’s Houdini and the potential Broadway Houdini musical lagging behind in this particular biopic race. But the big news isn’t just Landis’ involvement. It’s where he’s taking the project: in an H.P. Lovecraft-inspired direction.
This could be huge; a Lincoln-skewering-vampires film with actual creative pedigree and not just lots of slow-motion train explosions. Landis is already establishing himself as a serious voice in horror, with an upcoming James McAvoy-starring Frankenstein and contributions to TV horror anthologies Masters of Horror and Fear Itself. Now, not only would he be giving a big-budget voice to Lovecraft (something the world has been missing for a long, long time), but he’d be doing so while blending biopic fact and fantasy fiction.
Plus, there’s an actual real-life connection between Houdini and that old curmudgeon who specialized in making readers brown their pants in terror. It’s likely that Landis’ Houdini film will have something to do with “Under the Pyramids,” a short story written by Lovecraft about the famous magician. Like the potential film, it’s a blending of real and the not-so-real: the story follows Houdini during a real-life Egyptian vacation he took in 1910 where his guide allegedly kidnapped the escape artist and tried to sacrifice him to some unholy tentacled horror lurking underneath the Egyptian ruins. Houdini, as is his trade, escaped, and lived to tell the tale. The whole “unimaginable nightmare beasts” thing is probably a fiction, but it might be a good idea to check under the pyramids. Just in case.
But assuming the tentacle monsters aren’t actually real, this Houdini film might finally break some new ground in the biopic genre. It’d finally demolish The Truth while (hopefully) remaining a legitimate film, and as a plus, it’d introduce a touch of horror to the realm of the biopic — something that’s not exactly a common occurrence. Harry Houdini: Monster Hunter might not create some gigantic new trend, considering just how popular the regular “facts only” biopics tend to be nowadays. But it would prove that sometimes a little fun and adventure can stretch outside the facts.
I’m all for realism in films about real people, but every once in a while it’d be nice to see a Saving Mr. Banks with a little fictionalized Disney magic, or an Exodus where Moses and the Pharaoh solve their dispute via freestyle funk dancing. Just a little variety once in a while, that’s all I’m asking.