I talk a lot in the book about how distribution bottlenecks distort our culture, with one of the best examples being Hollywood box office. Domestic box office gross revenues are heavily influenced by the number of screens any given movie is shown on. Much of what is usually attributed to quality and popularity is actually due to ubiquity--if you can get your movie to open on more than 3,000 screens, it's bound to do big numbers, whether it's any good or not (see Scary Movie 4). And if you can't get your movie into many theaters, it's not going to do much box office business, even if it's terrific.
The example I used in the book was 2005's absolute worst box office performer, The Dark Hours, which grossed $423 in its run (Not $423,000. Four hundred and twenty-three dollars). It's a Canadian horror film made on a small budget with a cast of relative unknowns, but, I wrote, "not bad at all, according to those who've seen it."
After the book came out, the agent of the film's director, Paul Fox, wrote to say that he had been honored to be mentioned. Despite winning several international awards, The Dark Hours (like many Canadian films) never got US distribution. The only reason it shows up on the US charts at all is that it played for one week at the indie-friendly Pioneer cinema in NYC. One theater, one week, and lucky to get even that--that's the reality of independent films. They asked me if I'd like a copy, and kindly sent a DVD along.
I got a chance to watch it last night and I'm pleased to report that it's really quite good. It's a psychological thriller about a prison psychiatrist, Samantha Goodman, with a brain tumor. After a year of stability, the tumor is now growing and she's starting to lose her grip on reality. Distraught, she drives through the snow to spend the weekend with her husband in the cabin where he's finishing a novel (assisted by her young sister) so she can tell him that the end is probably near. But shortly after arriving and giving him the bad news, they're interrupted by a knock on the door. A young man enters, suddenly pulls a gun, and is then joined by Harlan Pyne, a former patient of hers who had been imprisoned for murder and was, last she knew, still in a coma. He forces them to play games at gunpoint, choosing which body parts to lose and confessing to their crimes, from the affair that Sam's husband and her sister are having to the illegal drug experiment Sam performed on Harlan, who has the same tumor she has.
So far, that's the usual hostage horror stuff. But what makes the movie really interesting [spoiler alert] is that it's never clear what's real and what's being hallucinated by Sam. Does Harlan exist or is he simply a fantasy she created to cover her own murderous rampage? Are her husband and sister having an affair, or has she merely turned her suspicions about them into a vivid dream? There are dozens of clues scattered throughout to suggest that all is not what it seems, but the ambiguity about what's really going on will leaving you turning over scenes for hours afterwards as you consider different interpretations.
The acting is very solid, with Aidan Devine, who plays the psychopathically logical Harlan, the clear standout. Kate Greenhouse (Sam) is a bit chilly and unlikable, but I imagine that's meant to convey the emotional cost of living with a brain tumor. Aside from the distribution problem, my only explanation for the film's poor performance is its uninspired name, generic horror-film box art, and otherwise cheesy packaging--this film is a lot smarter than the box it came in. It's by no means the worst film of 2005; indeed, I'd actually put it in my personal top 100 for the year. The fact that House of Wax did $32 million at the box office and The Dark Hours did $0 million seems to be entirely due to differences in marketing and distribution, not quality.
Reassuringly, the financial failure of The Dark Hours hasn't destroyed Paul Fox's career. He's just finished Everything's Gone Green, which is Douglas Coupland's first screenplay and opened to acclaim at the Toronto Film Festival in September. But once again, it appears that he doesn't have any US theatrical distribution. Fox has talent and a track record of original, excellent filmmaking. Unfortunately, he's Canadian, so you probably won't be able to see his films here on anything but DVD. That's how distribution scarcity distorts culture. There are loads of good movies out there. There just aren't enough theater screens to show them on.