Lasciate ogne speranza, voi chi’intrate. How did it come to this? At the height of his power in Hollywood in 1999, Adam Sandler founded his own production company as a way to continue making the movies he enjoys. Over the years his films have slowly morphed into a pariah on the landscape of big budget studio comedies, becoming thinly veiled excuses for lavish vacations. But do they truly represent the nadir in the career of one of comedy’s once-brightest stars? Are there any hidden or underrated gems? Is there such a thing as too few fart jokes? Will I retain any sense of sanity by the end of this? Join me and find out, as we venture to the Happy Valley.
In “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou,” a second-season episode of The Simpsons, Danny DeVito plays Herb Powell, a bum who strikes it rich and is later revealed to be Homer’s brother. Feeling obligated to throw his brother a bone, Herb allows Homer to design his company’s newest car. Naturally, the decision is so disastrous that it costs Herb his company, his money and his relationship with Homer. In 2008, Adam Sandler announced that Happy Madison would be launching its own horror film imprint, Scary Madison, and his brother, Scott, would be co-writing the inaugural film’s script, with Dan Hannon. Sadly, The Shortcut would be the beginning and the end of Scary Madison, as the company would fold after just one film.
Of course, I’m not implying that Scott Sandler is the sole reason for the production company’s folding or that Adam Sandler should not have given his brother the opportunity to expand his company’s output; the script, which we’ll explore more of in a bit, is one of the better aspects of The Shortcut, which was essentially doomed from the start because of its uber-limited budget and from its deal with Leomax, which handled production and distribution. Horror films are notorious for their uniquely small budgets by cutting corners — or taking, ahem, shortcuts, if you will — on elements of production design and by primarily casting lesser-known actors. Scary Madison was able to do both, as The Shortcut predominantly takes place in three to four locations, none of which had to be built for the sake of the production … and one of which was just the nearby woods.
The plot is reminiscent of any number of urban legends involving spooky houses or creepy old men. If you grew up reading Goosebumps books in the 1990s, you’re the ideal target audience. Derek (Drew Seeley) is the new kid in town, who learns of a spooky shortcut in the woods that leads to a secluded farmhouse guarded by a mysterious old man. After recruiting his friends, the popular girl, and a jock with a missing dog (Shannon Woodward & Dave Franco, Katrina Bowden and Josh Emerson, respectively), the gang investigates with deadly consequences. Intercut with the current-day antics are flashbacks to the 1940s and ’50s that explore the origins of the creepy old man and his family’s twisted dynamics. While the two plots twist together nicely, the film doesn’t spend nearly enough time in the past to give the menacing weirdo enough weight once his ultimate motivations are revealed.
Though the plot is fairly simple, the script is nuanced enough to deserve a better production. We’re never invested enough in each character to lament their deaths, but the script treats them as real people rather than archetypes or stock characters. The film only runs roughly 85 minutes long (with credits) so a few extra scenes could have better developed the cast and their dynamics together. And the final plot twist is set up perfectly, with just enough foreshadowing to make it believable; again, I cannot emphasize enough the parallels to the Goosebumps franchise. None of the performances are offensively bad, or even great, although Dave Franco, new on the scene at the time, brings his charm and sense of fun for which he’s now known. But audiences generally don’t flock to horror films for the performances.
I wasn’t able to find a conclusive answer, but the film was reportedly only given a budget between $1 and $5 million. Yes, indie horror movies like Paranormal Activity or The Blair Witch Project were able to make explosive returns from budgets that microscopic, even by The Shortcut‘s standards, but those were films with entirely different conceits and goals in mind. By all accounts, Hannon and Sandler’s original versions of the scripts were hampered and neutered by Leomax, which pushed for a PG-13 rating. The oversight resulted in less gore and fewer scares, robbing the film of any real consequences. This is a film where one teenager gets shot with a shotgun and proceeds nearly unfettered.
It’s hard to say what could have been for Scary Madison if any number of things had gone differently for The Shortcut. It’s difficult to produce a film with such a limited budget and even more difficult to promote; throw in a tepid critical response and the film never stood a chance. The final product may not rise above the already low standards set by earlier films in this series, but the story behind the scenes is just as fascinating as any we’ve encountered so far.
- “I’m Getting Paid How Much?!” Inexplicable Cameo Award: The minimalism on display leaves no opportunities for cameos here, but I’d love to get a whole franchise of films about the horny art teacher.
- Just Go With It – The Happy Madison Promise: The Shortcut is so far outside the norm amongst the Happy Madison canon that I’m punting on this one.
- Fart Joke Counter: Unsurprisingly, none.
- The Walkout Test: I don’t believe the person in question would be caught dead at a horror film, but if they happened to walk into this one by accident, I could see them sticking around til the end.
- NEXT TIME: The real horror begins with Grown Ups.