25 Years of Vampires, Werewolves, Exorcisms, and More: The Best Screen Gems Movies

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25 Years of Vampires, Werewolves, Exorcisms, and More: The Best Screen Gems Movies

The Pope’s Exorcist closes with an exciting brazen implication that it may be the first of 200 movies in which an exorcist played by Russell Crowe will investigate pockets of hell-based activity here on Earth. (The characters all but say “one down, 199 to go.”) This might sound like empty, nutso bravado, and it probably is, but then again, The Pope’s Exorcist comes from Screen Gems, a Sony subsidiary that has produced seven Resident Evil movies and five Underworld movies, among other mashed-up monsters. Both of those series appear to be in a holding pattern; maybe it’s up to Russell Crowe to keep the Screen Gems brand alive.

Casual moviewatchers would be forgiven but not having much brand association with Screen Gems. It’s arguably the least immediately recognizable studio logo under the Sony umbrella, after the classic Columbia Pictures, the ’80s/’90s mainstay TriStar (it’s the one with the flying-horse logo), and arthouse institution Sony Pictures Classics. But genre fans should know Screen Gems well, even if they’ve come to dread it: This is the house that Paul W.S. Anderson built, a clearinghouse for action, horror, action-horror, action-fantasy, action-fantasy-horror, and other movies that weren’t getting much respect when the division’s current incarnation emerged nearly 25 years ago.

Though Screen Gems celebrates that quarter-century anniversary in December, its origins stretch back far further than 1998 . It was over a century ago that the company began as an animation studio founded by Margaret J. Winkler, who worked with Walt Disney before he started his own outfit. Later, Columbia Pictures distributed cartoons from Winkler Pictures, then purchased a stake in the company, before finally acquiring it outright in 1939. Slightly over a decade later, Screen Gems became Columbia’s entry into television production, where it flourished for 25 years before the brand was rechristened Columbia Pictures Television. A series of very ’80s mergers and acquisitions, including a purchase by the Coca-Cola Corporation and a sale to then-separate Tristar, which brought Columbia and the Screen Gems name to their current home: As divisions of the Sony corporation. Screen Gems was later resurrected as a genre arm for Sony, making movies typically bigger in scale than Sony Classics but not as big-ticket as Columbia or TriStar.

In other words, Screen Gems makes middle movies – exactly the kind of not-quite-low-budget fodder that so many studios have gleefully abandoned in the pursuit of tentpoles. Indeed, while many Screen Gems movies involve vampires, werewolves, exorcisms, and killer angels, their 25 years’ worth of relatively quiet middle-movie production also dabbles in other areas bigger studios have traditionally overlooked or disrespected when it was expedient to do so: Thrillers driven by Black talent, like Takers or The Perfect Guy; films by women directors, like Jane Campion’s maligned-then-reclaimed In the Cut; youth-culture pictures like Stomp the Yard or Easy A; romantic comedies like About Last Night or Friends with Benefits; sorta-musicals like Burlesque and Country Strong. And, yes, plenty of low-rent remakes of classics like Carrie, Straw Dogs and The Stepfather.

Not all of these movies are good. Some are pretty awful. But Screen Gems has carved out an identity for itself – there is certainly an easily recognizable “Screen Gems movie” vibe and The Pope’s Exorcist very much has it – while also throwing some genre curveballs. Its first film was the John Sayles thriller Limbo; its second was the starry terrorism potboiler Arlington Road. Talented directors have made pit stops here, other figures have made Screen Gems a default home; Milla Jovovich would have a career either way, but at Screen Gems, she’s a star. Now even an Oscar winner and household name like Russell Crowe is willing to cheerfully motor through a goofy Screen Gems exorcism movie on a scooter, having so much fun that he willingly implies that there could be nearly 200 more adventures to come. The Pope’s Exorcist isn’t one of the studio’s very best movies, but its flashes of craft amidst silliness and mercenary franchise-baiting are representative of the Screen Gems spirit.

In celebration of that spirit, and the studio’s upcoming birthday, here are the 15 best movies from throughout its 25-year history, judged on both individual merit and their place within the Screen Gems identity:

15. Underworld: Evolution (2006)

The first Underworld movie, in which vampires and werewolves have gun battles in an unnamed metropolis, was an aesthetically influential hit for Screen Gems, affecting a shiny-pleather imitation of Matrix sleekness and obviously inspiring the middling likes of Priest and Legion. (How was there never a Screen Gems movie starring Kate Beckinsale and Paul Bettany?) The truly Underworldly, however, will appreciate the more overt trashiness of the first sequel, which has more violence and sex, and (somewhat) fewer scenes of vampiric aristocrats walking through ornate doorways.

14. Armored (2009)

Pulpier and more savory than some of Screen Gems’ many early-‘90s-style domestic thrillers with Black leads, Armored feels more akin to sister company Columbia’s 1940s noirs, with Columbus Short as a good man ensnared in a heist plot with his armored-car-security colleagues. Much of the movie takes place in a stationary vehicle, and director Nimród Antal does capable work milking that scenario, with the help of a ringer-heavy cast: Laurence Fishburne, Jean Reno, and Matt Dillon (who also co-starred in this film’s unofficial companion piece, the entertaining Takers).

13. In the Cut (2003)

Jane Campion’s serial-killer thriller is one of those movies that was so unfairly dismissed, and so rapturously reclaimed by some corners of film culture, that it’s easy for it to become weirdly overrated. The press at the time focused on the fact that America’s designated sweetheart Meg Ryan got dark, naked, and naked in the dark for steamy encounters with then-rising star Mark Ruffalo. That aspect does give the movie a subversive charge, but with two decades of hindsight it’s also easier to see In the Cut as an impressionistic portrait of early-2000s New York City, shot in smeary shallow focus with greenish tints and noirish shadows. It’s a Screen Gems outlier, striking an unintentional contrast with the near-simultaneous release of Underworld, and one of the best of the studio’s occasional (and, yes, sometimes seemingly accidental) auteur projects.

12. Searching (2018)

Horror fans will swear by one or both Unfriended movies, but Searching remains the Screen Life thriller – a found-footage cousin in which all of the action unfolds via computer screens – that comes closest to Hitchcockian glory. John Cho gets a too-rare leading-man turn as a dad investigating the disappearance of his teenage daughter, and director Aneesh Chaganty gives the movie the oddly transfixing urgency of an internet rabbit hole.

11. Hostel (2006)

You have to hand it to Eli Roth. (Or, do you? But let’s just let him have this one.) He really goes for it with Hostel, a gross-out horror show that either satirizes Ugly American fears of traveling abroad, or indulges them – or maybe both? – with a festival of bodily torture. Hostel separates itself from the contemporaneous Saw movies with an ascent into actual suspense in its final stretch, as well as that nasty sense of humor that he hasn’t really deployed as well since Hostel Part II upped the ante further in 2007. If Hostel still seems like more of a Lionsgate movie, well, in the U.S. it was; Screen Gems handled international distribution, making this one seem even more like a flirtation with a different corner of horror. I love the Screen Gems action-fantasy-horror nexus, but there’s something satisfying about their occasional willingness to indulge something that feels genuinely disreputable.

10. Vacancy (2007)

Underworld badass Kate Beckinsale goes Scream Queen for this lean horror exercise from Armored director Nimród Antal. Beckinsale and Luke Wilson play a bickering married couple who must fight for their lives when they’re trapped at a sinister motel. It was marketed as sort of a grody Saw-adjacent nightmare, and while it certainly has a low-down B-movie grit, Vacancy is also logistically impressive, turning a mundane location into an unexpectedly hellish gauntlet.

9. Underworld: Rise of the Lycans (2009)

Surprise! The best Underworld movie doesn’t actually have Kate Beckinsale or original director Len Wiseman; instead, Beckinsale’s ex Michael Sheen has a rare star turn in this backstory-packed prequel from production designer Patrick Tatopoulos. Its origin story of the vampires-versus-werewolves conflict had already been aired in previous Underworld movies, but this entirely redundant retelling is also the liveliest of the bunch, more medieval monster mash than Matrix knockoff.

8. Resident Evil: Extinction (2007)

The better of the two Resident Evil movies not directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, and one of the series’ best overall, fast-forwards to a post-apocalyptic desert setting, where Alice (Milla Jovovich) and a band of survivors must fight their way through original-recipe zombies, infected crow zombies, and the usual Umbrella Corporation overreach. Highlander director Russell Mulcahy guides the series through a turning point, where the zombie apocalypse has happened, there’s a pile of dead Alice clones building up, and telekinesis is on the table. It may not take place in one of Anderson’s patented geometric mazes, but Extinction is where the Resident Evil movies really come into focus as expert genre/ripoff artistry.

7. Don’t Breathe (2016)

Sam Raimi has produced a lot of crummy horror movies over the years, and one really damn good one: The home-invasion thriller Don’t Breathe, which wrings maximum suspense (and, eventual, some extra disgust) out of a simple premise. A group of young people in economically ravaged Detroit break into an old blind man’s house, hoping to steal some rumored treasure. Turns out the blind guy is played by Stephen Lang (best known as the bad guy in the Avatar movies), and they’ll be lucky to escape with their lives. Director Fede Álvarez has since been called up to bigger leagues (he’s doing an Alien movie at Disney), but his willingness to tighten the screws and risk genuine bad taste make Don’t Breathe a particularly satisfying creep-out.

6. Attack the Block (2011)

An auspicious directorial debut for frequent Edgar Wright collaborator Joe Cornish, Attack the Block is the rare movie to pull from Amblin movies of the ’80s with a style and point of view that goes beyond “gee, Steven Spielberg was a pretty cool producer, huh?” (Even Cornish’s own The Kid Who Would Be King struggled with this a bit.) Alien beasts descend upon a public housing block in London, and a gang of teenagers led by Moses (John Boyega, in a star-making turn) forms an unexpected last line of defense – along with Samantha (Jodie Whittaker), a resident the gang has recently mugged. It’s a neat and propulsive play on the kids-encountering-creatures subgenre, transplanting the action away from the American suburbs. As much fun as the studio’s various genre exercises have been over the years, it’s a bit of a shame that Screen Gems haven’t more often dabbled in this kind of importing.

5. Girlfight (2000)

Screen Gems really should have kept Karyn Kusama around over the years. In the company’s early days, it picked up Girlfight, her pugnacious debut feature, from Sundance, and it quickly became one of those turn-of-the-century festival titles that failed to gross as much as the studio in question paid for the distribution rights. All of Kusama’s follow-ups, including Jennifer’s Body, The Invitation, and Destroyer, fit into various Screen Gems niches and might have occupied the upper reaches of this list; Girlfight is actually the least genre-y movie in Kusama’s too-short filmography. But this boxing drama is characteristically smart and well-shot, featuring a debut performance from Michelle Rodriguez that makes clear why she’s still starring in movies almost a quarter-century later. Currently hard to find, it’s worth tracking down a DVD.

4. Resident Evil: The Final Chapter (2017)

As a culmination of the six-film Resident Evil story, The Final Chapter is rushed at best and perplexing at worst (it doesn’t help that it begins by entirely eliding a massive battle set up by the previous film’s ending). However: As a kitchen-sink Mad Max knockoff, featuring Milla Jovovich riding a motorcycle through a zombie wasteland, battling monsters, and returning to the rotting site of the original 2002 movie, this may be the best Resident Evil movie, or at least the one that best satisfies Paul W.S. Anderson’s hunger to imitate as many genre movies as possible while staying true to his oddly exacting vision of rat-maze combat.

3. Easy A (2010)

Speaking of star-making performances: Emma Stone was funny from the jump, stealing moments in Superbad and scenes in The House Bunny. But she had to be sent back to high school to claim true leading-lady status in Easy A, still the best solo vehicle after all these years. Writer-director Will Gluck has a self-conscious urge to let you know whenever he’s seen another movie before, which means he feeds Stone a lot of unnecessary John Hughes references. But Easy A more closely resembles the classic-lit-update teen cinema of the 1990s, riffing on The Scarlet Letter with a bit more chill and intelligence than Ten Things I Hate About You or She’s All That. Though the cast is uniformly good (especially Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson as droll parents), the movie’s prickly playfulness feels precisely tailored to Stone’s style. In retrospect, this feels like one of the last true star-is-born vehicles for a long time.

2. Snatch (2000)

Screen Gems had the honor of releasing Guy Ritchie’s career-resetting nadir Swept Away – but two years earlier, it also put out his still-best film, a comic caper that solidified the Ritchie/Statham relationship. Snatch remains his best batch of irritable and/or quirky gangster-and-gangster-adjacent types; it’s also the only one with Brad Pitt as a dive-averse boxer entering the ring to the tune of the Oasis instrumental “Fucking in the Bushes.” Though Ritchie only made two Screen Gems movies, Snatch nails the label’s middle ground perfectly; it was too small for Columbia but not posh enough for Sony Classics.

 1. Monster Hunter (2020)

Sacrificed to half-open movie theaters during the pre-vaccine phase of the pandemic, Monster Hunter is therefore the rare movie to sit in the top 10 movies at the U.S. domestic box office for 14 weeks without qualifying as actual hit. Too bad; Paul W.S. Anderson and Milla Jovovich made their best movie, and – understandably – no one showed up. In perfect list-topping fashion, Monster Hunter perfectly embodies a number of Screen Gems attributes while also transcending them: It’s a 90-minutes-and-change, videogame-based action-fantasy movie with touches of creature-based horror, starring Milla Jovovich, with a ludicrously open “tune in next time” franchise-tease ending… yet there’s also a loopy survivalist poetry to its man-versus-creature battles, depicted by Anderson in an excitable range of color schemes: bright desert yellows in one scene, lush oasis greens in another, gun-metal Underworld tones in yet another. It’s the kind of B-movie that offhandedly puts large swaths of recent summer blockbuster lineups to shame in terms of pacing, action-movie charisma (from Jovovich and a delightful Tony Jaa), and even visual effects. In other words: a gem; please make 200 more.

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