This article was first published in Empire Magazine Issue #203 (May 2006).
Uwe Boll is at the top of his game, but you'll have to search low to find him. Like, for example, the bottom shelf in your local Blockbuster. Or the deepest depths of IMDb.com's worst films of all time (his directorial works currently occupy #14, #19 and #20). In the low-budget, high-nudity world of straight-to-video, it's easy to make a film that's terrible but instantly forgettable, yet Boll has mastered the art of the horrifically memorable. He combines '80s-style effects, risible dialogue, dull plotting of potentially decent stories, miscast 'name' actors operating at the bottom of their game and appalling action in a way that manages to teeter just on the wrong side of so-bad-it's-good, stumbling back into so-bad-it's-offensive-to-the-soul. It's a skill for the woeful that makes him the linear successor to '50s B-movie trash auteur, the legendary Ed Wood.
Boll, or Dr. Boll to you (he has a doctorate in literature), is by his own admission probably "the most hated director in the world right now". But the 40 year-old German never intended to become the master of this particular genre, which has seen him responsible for multiple rancid adaptations of popular video games, including House Of The Dead (budget zombies), Alone In The Dark (Tara Reid as an archaeologist fighting evil demons) and BloodRayne (T3 nemesis Kristanna Loken as a half-vampire with family issues) that have made him a cult figure among film geeks.
Poor old Uwe Boll. Forget the critics – see what they're saying at PetitionOnline.com...
To: Dr. Uwe Boll
We, the undersigned, respectfully ask that Uwe Boll give proper weight to the wishes of the video game community, the horror community, and the filmgoing community in general and stop directing, producing, or taking any part in the creation of feature films. His distasteful handling of the subject matter and lack of acknowledgement of his failures simply cannot be abided any longer.
Mr. Boll has repeatedly shown a complete lack of comprehension regarding the video games he has dragged, kicking and screaming, to the silver screen, and his ham-fisted approach to horror has soiled future possibilities for anyone else who may attempt to bring video games to film.
It's arguable that there has never been a good video game adaptation, but it's unquestionable that there has never been one quite so bad as Boll's first, House Of The Dead. And he knows it. "When I was first given the script for House Of The Dead, I thought it was a piece of shit," he laughs. For the record, Boll proves a game and self-deprecating subject throughout our chat – the first interview he's done in the UK. "But then I was told to go to the streets and ask kids if they knew House Of The Dead and they all did. So I thought, 'Let's do House Of The Dead.'"
And therein lies the philosophy that has generated the mini-mogul's greatest financial gain and artistic bankruptcy: if kids recognise the name, it'll make money regardless of quality, and by the time the game fans have witnessed the raping of their favourite thumb-number, he's onto the next. Boll operates on four simple rules: make it quick (two movies in a year), make it cheap (his budgets are rarely above $20 million), sell it fast (all international rights are sold before filming, based on brand recognition), and never overestimate the intelligence of your audience (well, just watch one). His films consistently tank in the US, but fare better internationally, and since distribution stems from Boll's own production company, he's the one raking in the cash.
t's hard for me to throw my producer's approach away and just be the director," he says of his filmmaking. "I'm responsible for the money. The investors give me the money and they count on me that I deliver on time and in budget. I'm not a studio. I cannot throw Tara Reid off Alone In The Dark because I think she sucks; then I have $500,000 tanked and I have no actress replacement for her. This is doable if you have a movie like X-Men 3. They went $25 million over budget and Brett Ratner couldn't give a shit. It's not his money. It is impossible if you have $200 million to make a movie that sucks totally, even if we have movies like Stealth, or The Island, or Van Helsing that were not very good. I do the movies for $15, 20, 25 million."
Clockwise from top left: Uwe directs Burt Reynolds on the set of In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale; Christian Slater in Alone In The Dark; Kristanna Loken in BloodRayne; 2003's House Of The Dead.
What The Critics Said...
"Shot on location in Romania, BloodRayne has the unmistakably tatty look of a low-budget international co-production… The costumes suggest what The Lord Of The Rings might have looked like if its actors had been outfitted at thrift shops." Variety
Alone In The Dark (2005)
"Every so often, an out-and-out stinker like Alone In The Dark comes into the marketplace. This horror film is so inept, you wonder why the distributor didn't release it straight to video, or better, toss it directly into the trash." New York Times
House Of The Dead (2003)
"A mixture of bad acting, low-rent effects, a pounding techno soundtrack to keep us awake, zombie make-up that will be bettered by the trick-or-treaters knocking at your door during this Hallowe'en weekend, and seriously dumb dialogue." The Times
Heart Of America (2003)
"Mr. Uwe Boll has his sights set on becoming the king of amazingly bad video-game movies… Imagine Columbine as translated into colouring book form, and you're halfway to understanding how hilariously bad and amazingly tacky this flick is." eFilmcritic
"A glum psychological horror opens today for what will surely be a quick stopover on the way to videostore bins. [The director and writer] fail to generate any interest in an unsympathetic hero caught up in an intricate plot that cannot overcome blah characters." Los Angeles Times
Hollywood is a realm ruled by money before art, yet the massively off-kilter balance achieved by Boll has naturally poisoned a few critical pens. A breed conditioned to recoil from video-game spawn, critics' gleeful destruction of his movies (see sidebar) is surely instrumental in building his stature. But, of course, critics alone cannot bestow the level of infamy that Boll has achieved. That honour falls to that group who can destroy a movie before it opens and raise the truly awful to kitsch heroism or, in this case, international damnation: the internet geeks. In short they detest him, both for his 'ineptitude' and his sullying of the stories that fill their many lonely moments. A simple Google search will turn up petitions to force him into retirement, while Geek Overlord Harry Knowles has launched a vitriolic campaign against him. At the same time, they cannot resist talking about him, which is hardly surprising given that stories from the set of his most recent project, BloodRayne, included one cast member allegedly arriving consistently drunk, causing his co-star to refuse to work with him, and Romanian prostitutes being plucked from the street when extras for an orgy scene proved too costly. The irony might be that if critics and geeks ignored him he might well disappear back into the primordial soup of faceless DTV directors, but both groups are addicted to the bile he stirs in them and the opportunity he represents for pithy put-downs.
But Boll is by no means the fool his critics take him for, having started life in Germany as a cinema obsessive with eclectic taste and artistic ambition. "I looked at movies like crazy," says Boll, who is surprisingly jovial and charming for a pariah. "I went every weekend to the movie theatre where they showed classic movies – David Lean, Fellini, Godzilla and Japanese stuff. I found out really fast that I'm a big fan of American cinema. Even if I admire people like Truffaut – and he did great work – I prefer John Ford or William Wyler movies." And like any aspiring Hollywood mogul, he started his filmic career making Super-8 movies: "Action movies with models and puppets – we'd mix up some gun powder and blow them up. Not anything plot-driven." It would prove to be a formula he stuck with through his German debut, German Fried Movie (an 'homage' to John Landis' Kentucky Fried Movie), to that dreaded genre that would sap him of the last quavering drops of creative ambition and bring great financial success: video-game adaptations.
"Everyone thinks I'm a complete retard," Boll says, with only a hint of upset. "What should I do? The reality is I can't do anything about it. Alone In The Dark was way better than House Of The Dead, and BloodRayne was way better than Alone In The Dark. But you go on IMDb and there are thousands of votes against BloodRayne before it's opened. That's not fair." And that's the one chink in Boll's business armour: he actually thinks he's getting better. His casts are improving – the next, In The Name Of The King, will star Jason Statham, Ray Liotta, Burt Reynolds and one-time 'next big thing' Leelee Sobieski - though that's likely due more to easy paychecks and fading careers than artistic advancement. He talks of his five future projects, all computer game adaptations, naturally, and all set for release within two years, with enthusiasm. The biggest worry, however distant it may be, is that he might one day follow through on this belief and make a competent film. The bargain bin would be a much sadder place for it.
This article was first published in Empire Magazine Issue #203 (May 2006).