The Hangover Trilogy – Letting the Eldritch Seep

The Hangover Trilogy - Letting the Eldritch Seep HORROR FEATURE

As we’ve seen throughout, The Hangover series has always embraced the bizarre and dark to its advantage, but The Hangover Part III is the first to address death, grief and mental illness head-on.

Bob Freville

Letting the Eldritch Seep: The Hangover Trilogy

Letting the Eldritch Seep is a bi-weekly celebration of those rare times when popular culture encountered the macabre in the back alleys of Hollywood, and decided to bump uglies in honor of all that is strange in the main vein. Today’s installment takes us to that moral Necropolis known as Las Vegas.

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Most comedies introduce themselves as comedies with their opening titles, which are often colourful or cut together at a hell-for-leather pace. Think of the films of Savage Steve Holland (Better Off Dead, One Crazy Summer), those Eighties comedies that announced themselves with animated sequences. The 

Hangover does the inverse—its opening scene with its shots of frantic phone calls that go to voice mail as a wedding cake is delivered establishes that something has gone terribly awry. Then… everything gets worse.

Historically, comedies have established their punchlines with wide shots that capture the physical comedy and awkwardness of situations. The Hangover immediately defies this rule by capturing Phil (Bradley Cooper) in a medium close-up, eyes covered in red-tinted aviators, face marred by stubble, sweat and desert earth.

He informs the film’s scarcely-seen bride-in-waiting (the memorably underutilized Sasha Barrese) that they’ve lost her beloved groom-to-be (an utterly forgettable Justin Bartha). 

“We’re supposed to be married in five hours,” she exclaims.

“Yeah,” Phil says, frowning at the sun. “That’s not gonna happen.”

People don’t talk to each other like this in a comedy! This is Jim Thompson territory. Richard Stark. Not since Cary Grant has a comedy’s leading man been this direct, and I don’t mean obnoxious or salty or rude. We get plenty of that in every other cynical, hipper-than-thou comedy that comes out nowadays. I’m talking about direct, brusque, and unsparing.

The first big beats of The Hangover feel less like we are venturing into a comedy and more like we’ve wandered into a dangerous saloon run by some cinema-mad pervert who likes their spaghetti westerns with a side of hard-boiled film noir.

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That’s when the gloomy doom rock of Goth troubador Danzig overwhelms the soundtrack, bearing down on us as the sun bears down on grim images of Las Vegas at its harshest.  The titles unspool in simple, deliberate fonts that are simple but deliberately edited to convey menace (,i.e. the musical crescendo that hits as the casino fountains go off like a shotgun).

“Bad luck wind been blowin’ on my back,” Danzig sings. “I was born to bring trouble wherever I’m at. With the number ’13’ tattooed on my neck. That ink starts to itch. Black gon’ turn to red.”

The title sequence with its nihilistic soundtrack and askew view of Sin City hotels, casinos and escort services could just as easily signal the start of a Michael Mann neo-noir thriller or even a gore-drenched western by Rob Zombie. 

Think of another comedy that opens with a song proclaiming, “I was born in the soul of misery.” With the exception of The Blues Brothers, there are few comedies that open this ominously.

The cinematography, too, feels straight out of something too dark for comedy, almost like test footage for a violent heist film. If you reduce the film down to its biggest sight gags and remove bits of the audio, you would essentially have a sizzle reel of pure cinematic anarchy—cars run clean through glass bus stop partitions, tigers loosed in a hotel, a person emerging like a feral animal from the place where strangers (or new friends?) held them captive, people being beaten, Tazed, and generally brutalized by those around them when they aren’t so tweaked that they’re doing it to themselves. 

The surprises are too extreme for what would normally constitute a studio comedy. If you’ve seen the 

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film, you know exactly what scene I’m referring to; it occurs about 56 minutes into the flick and it involves a naked man and a tire iron. A later scene featuring the same supporting character feels like it owes a debt to both John Dahl’s Joyride and Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2.

These are not the sight gags we had come to expect from our spoonfed mainstream slapstick. Even the dialogue sounded too profane for your average Farrelly Brothers fare. “Buttfucking a corpse?”

The Hangover series enjoys the cultural impact it does not because it’s a bromance (it’s only kind of that and you know Phil would tell you to shut the fuck up if you suggested as much), but because it is an action-packed piece of entertainment that happens to be extremely funny.

It should come as no surprise to Joker fans that Phillips took his influences from serious places, some of them straight genre. In addition to his well-documented love of Fight Club and other David Fincher films, Phillips has been influenced by the likes of Martin Scorsese, Milos Forman, and Sidney Lumet. 

But it’s his early mentor, Ivan Reitman, who may be his most significant influence here.

Reitman became a renowned force in Hollywood with a string of comic successes, including Meatballs, Ghostbusters, Stripes, Twins, and the laughably bad Junior. But he began his career with the Canuxploitation movies Foxy Lady and Cannibal Girls, which combine the requisite blood, guts and boobies of the pulp genre with a wicked sense of humour. Phillips’ Hangover trilogy share the spontaneity and unpredictability of those early Reitman flicks as well as Reitman’s penchant for casting extremes.

Bradley Cooper is at his best in The Hangover, always bringing an intensity to his portrayal of Phil that elevates the character from the type of guy typical of a Hollywood comedy. His presence grounds the film in its gritty milieu because he honestly feels like he belongs in a different kind of picture, a high-stakes crime drama or dark cyber-thriller perhaps.

The Hangover Part II has drawn a lot of criticism for being too much of a Hangover I redux, which is kind of like someone petitioning for a network to bring back Lost and then bitching that the whole thing takes place on a remote island. Despite all the wailing, the film took in a staggering $586.8 million at worldwide box office against an $80 million budget. This proves two things about The Hangover series: 1) its fans are loyal and 2) many of those millions of movie theatre attendees were trolls who clearly paid for the privilege of hate-watching this one. 

Here the maniacal men behaving badly concept is transplanted from Vegas to Bangkok where a minor is drugged and more mayhem ensues than you can shake a dick at. This time around, Phillips’ needle drops include a film-commissioned opening titles theme from Danzig that sums up the films’ central preoccupation (“There’s a demon in your head/) as well as the “The Beast in Me” by Johnny Cash, and a number of hip hop joints that once again subverted the Hollywood comedy formula.

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The series is deliberately lensed in such a way as to defy our expectations of Hollywood comedy. Where most supposed laugh-riots try to maintain a sunny palette, Phillips and company employ meticulous lighting and gritty second-unit photography to keep everything steeped in the darkness of David Fincher at his cheeriest.

The opening titles unfurl over images of giant grey clouds rolling in and the dripping pipes of rundown hostels, evoking the torture porn films of the time instead of the gimmicky comedies that plagued us in 2011 (Bad Teacher, Friends with Benefits and, worst of all, Your Highness).

Even the way the Wolf Pack seem to blink out of existence a la Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet and the way the camera lingers on time-lapse footage of the lonesome beach bonfire feels foreboding in a way that owes more of a debt to David Lynch than David Fincher. 

This time, the stakes feel higher than they were in the first Hangover, perhaps by virtue of the extreme fish-out-of-water location jump or, perhaps, by virtue of the severed finger they find early into their titular hangover, a reveal that seems to pay homage to the ear discovered by Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle “You know the chicken walk?” McClucklynne) in Blue Velvet.

The Hangover trilogy engages its audience because at its core it is a what-the-fuck-did-we-do-with-it—its own patented take on the who-dun-it—where we already know up front who did it, but we have to work backwards to unravel what exactly went down and how it will negatively impact our protagonists. In some ways, the structure was imitated for dramatic effect in season three of Nic Pizolatto’s True Detective series.

Speaking of drama, The Hangover Part II has plenty of it as we start to realize why Phil (the pitch-perfect Bradley Cooper) is as important to the Hangover formula as he seems. Not only is he the macho glue holding the films together, but he also reveals himself to be the paternal and even maternal figure at various points throughout, knowing exactly when to ease off on breaking a character’s balls and how to give them some much-needed support. 

This is probably why the risk of him ending up in harm’s way seems so real and dangerous. Which, of course, Phillips and company play up in wonderfully impish fashion during the film’s second act. In short, America loves Bradley Cooper and we don’t even really know why. The Hangover Part II gets a lot of traction out of that fact.

I’ll say it again:

America loves Bradley Cooper, the same Bradley Cooper who played the nauseatingly entitled white bread douchebag at the centre of Wedding Crashers. That’s right, America’s crabcake-scarfing Frisbee-playing ass loves “The Sack.” 

That is why we love Phil so much. Sure, he’s an asshole, but he isn’t the same grade of asshole as Sack was, and the Hangover trilogy seems to remind us that we should be appreciative of that fact. It suggests through its exploration of his character across the trilogy that we love Phil because he’s someone we would enjoy partying with. More than that, he seems like the type of guy we would all want in our lives.

Sure, he’s casually misogynistic and mildly homophobic, but there’s always one of those at every party. Phil so happens to be the one with kids who takes care of people and values his friends like they were his own flesh and blood. He’s the true alpha male, one who has evolved to the point of empathy as well as animal desires. Which is more than we can say for Cooper’s pre-Hangover performances.

If Phil is The Hangover trilogy’s poster boy and designated den mother, Alan (Zack Galifianakis) seems like its central antagonist, a mentally unhinged manchild with some wicked sociopathic tendencies and a thing for drugging people without their consent. All of this would make him the villain in any other movie, except in The Hangover universe nothing is so cut and dried.

In The Hangover Part II, we see more of Alan’s vulnerable side than we did in the original and it becomes clear why the Wolf Pack is so important to him. By the end of The Hangover Part III, we realize just how damaged and developmentally challenged Alan is and what that looks like for his future. The outcome may seem obvious, but what it says about mental health came as a shock to me.

The surprise appearance of a recognizable face (Paul Giamatti) as a boisterous villain in The Hangover Part II reminds us that this is as much an action thriller as it is a Frat-style comedy. Phillips’ casting and directorial choices keep The Hangover from ever feeling safe, which is what makes it so thrilling. It’s almost like the franchise exists somewhere between Van Wilder, Old School and The Usual Suspects.

The Hangover Part III is poised to be something different from the very start. The foreboding and operatic music starts with ominous strings that call to mind film noir or Hitchcock at his darkest, only for a chorus to announce this as something all the more epic—a large-scale prison riot and the subsequent jailbreak of the notorious Leslie Chow (series breakout Ken Jeong).

As we’ve seen throughout,

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The Hangover trilogy has always embraced the bizarre and dark to its advantage, but The Hangover Part III is the first to address death, grief and mental illness head-on.

Ed Helms’ Stu carries more weight this time around and Chow all but owns the film, which focuses on a feud between the coked-out troublemaker and a regional drug kingpin played with typical menace by John Goodman. Goodman’s appearance connects Part III to the original film in much the way Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton’s ingenious scripts managed to connect exhaustive Saw sequels to the James Wan contempo-classic.

Part III is without question the weakest instalment in the trilogy, lacking the spontaneity and pace of its predecessors and foregoing the catalyzing events that served as fertilizer for the first two films. Danzig’s music is shoehorned in this time around, which is unfortunate given the prominent role his music had played in the franchise up to that point. 

Nevertheless, the stakes are even higher than in the previous entries and Phillips continues to dial up the weird and gritty. While the characters aren’t necessarily bloody (except for a few fellas massacred in the anti-climactic climax), the Wolf Pack always appears like they might have blood under their nails. Lest we forget the meat-riddled chase scene from Part II?  

In summary, Phillips’ The Hangover Trilogy resonates as much as it does because it refuses to play by the rules of conventional comedies and isn’t afraid to draw blood.

Bob Freville is a writer, producer and director from New York. Freville’s films include the Berkeley TV cult classic Of Bitches & Hounds and the Troma vampire movie Hemo. His X-rated bikersploitation novella The Filthy Marauders is available from The Evil Cookie Publishing. He is an associate producer of the Sean Whalen horror-comedy Crust and the writer-producer of the forthcoming Norwegian drug comedy The Scavengers of Stavanger. Follow @bobfreville

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